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Off year leads to low turnout in St. Petersburg elections

ST. PETERSBURG — A small share of voters will decide today who should be the city's next mayor, Kathleen Ford or Bill Foster.

Emphasis on small.

Modest turnout is expected as a result of scheduling an election in an off year from major national or state races. It has been that way for decades in St. Petersburg and most cities.

Mail ballot returns suggest St. Petersburg is only slightly ahead of the 23 percent turnout in the Sept. 1 primary. The city has 156,478 registered voters, or roughly 60 percent of the city's population.

Even Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark chuckles lightly at the notion that poll workers should probably bring a good book with them to pass time at the polls today.

"The American voter is lazy," said City Council member Herb Polson, who won office in 2007 amid the lowest turnout in city history at 9.8 percent.

Turnout likely would increase if the city synched its elections with state and national voting dates, Clark said. It also would save money.

Today's election will cost St. Petersburg $300,000.

If the city held the election with the countywide races in 2010, the cost would have ranged from $19,000 to $76,000, depending on the ballot size, according to the county elections office.

Why the separation in the first place?

The city started having elections in off years because of reforms begun a century ago.

Eager to rid local elections of greasy machine politics, cities made the elections non-partisan and scheduled them for years when national campaigns wouldn't run at the same time, said retired University of South Florida professor Darryl Paulson, who follows city politics. The practice started in the 1930s, according to newspaper accounts.

Without the star power of big-name candidates or the horsepower of political parties, however, most St. Petersburg elections have ended with turnouts between 20 and 40 percent in recent decades.

Turnout was 34 percent the last time the mayor's race was open, when Mayor Rick Baker soundly defeated Ford in 2001.

The record is 53 percent during the contentious 1993 mayoral election, when David Fischer edged out Curt Curtsinger by 1,400 votes, one of the narrowest victories in city history.

It doesn't help that the current mayoral candidates, Ford and Foster, haven't created much of a buzz either, political observers say. Previous elections were more contentious, or had bigger, more divisive issues to debate.

"If this were on the old Dating Game, I think Ford and Foster would have gone home alone," Paulson said.

But turnout figures don't always tell the entire picture, said Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Association of Elections Officials. Local officials can "get lost in the shuffle" in national races, and longer ballots can be "unwieldy."

However, there's a bit of political self-interest involved, too. This way, local politicians get media attention without competing against a Bush or Obama.

Their argument is voters get a better sense of the city candidates, though people seem to choose local fire district boards in East Lake and elsewhere in even years without their governance collapsing.

In Florida, only two of the 10 largest cities have even-year elections for mayor or city councils. Tampa uses odd years, too.

Tallahassee voters passed a referendum in 2004 to change the election to even years starting in 2006. Politicians initially resisted, but the change has benefited the public, said Ion Sancho, Leon County's supervisor of elections.

More people vote and it costs much less to run an election, he said. In 2006, turnout was above average or higher for city races in Tallahassee.

Clark said the downside to switching election years is that voters could leave city races blank because the bigger races siphoned away voter and media attention.

Ultimately, she said, it's the city's decision.

Polson, the St. Petersburg City Council member, said it could be time for the city to consider even-year elections. He dismissed the idea that the city gains by having its own time slot.

The next charter review takes place in 2011. He will watch today's results to help decide whether to support changing Election Day in St. Petersburg.

"You really do have to trust the citizens," Sancho said. "You can't be patronizing toward them."

Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Off year leads to low turnout in St. Petersburg elections 11/02/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 3, 2009 10:20pm]

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