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Pasco officials hope high-profile races boost voter turnout

If history is any guide, about three-quarters of Pasco voters will skip next month's primary election.

Perhaps they shouldn't.

The Aug. 14 election will determine two county commissioners, a School Board member, the Port Richey mayor and a handful of circuit judges. Primary voters also will effectively decide the school superintendent and two state representatives because winners in those races only face token write-in opponents in the fall.

Of course, November's presidential election will grab most of the headlines and attention from voters. But Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley argued, "the County Commission, School Board and other local races can have more of an impact on our lives."

Despite historically low turnout figures for primaries, there are signs — however subtle — that the upcoming election could exceed expectations.

As of Friday afternoon, 7,200 Pasco voters returned mail ballots. That already tops the total absentee voters from the 2008 primary, and it's quickly approaching the figure from 2010. And there are still thousands of mail ballots that haven't been returned.

"There clearly is a paradigm shift away from Election Day to early voting and vote by mail," Corley said. "Traditionally, that didn't increase overall turnout."

But Corley said he is rethinking that point after seeing turnout figures for the Republican presidential primary in January. He predicted about a quarter of county voters would show up. The actual turnout was 38 percent.

"I tend to think you're going to see it go up a little bit," he said, adding that upcoming early voting figures will be a strong indicator. "There seems to be a lot of interest."

Of course, turnout in January was helped by a barrage of TV ads from Mitt Romney's campaign and his primary rivals. The upcoming election is also different from 2010, when the heated GOP gubernatorial primary drew 30 percent of Pasco Republicans to the polls. There's no such marquee statewide race this year.

Normally, that would lead to a depressed turnout. But political consultant Shawn Foster said Pasco could slightly buck that trend because of high-profile campaigns for school superintendent and sheriff.

"You do have a couple of those major races that are countywide that are going to pull out voters," he said.

Foster recently studied turnout in the past eight primary elections in five Tampa Bay counties. On average, between 21 percent and 27 percent of Republican voters cast ballots.

He noticed a gradual increase over those elections and believes turnout for this election could tick up a couple of percentage points toward the higher end of that scale. "That 2 percent, that changes a race," he said.

Florida's closed primary system adds another wrinkle. Most of this year's primary campaigns are focused only on Republican voters.

For example, Sen. Mike Fasano is only appealing to about 34,000 voters as he seeks a return to the Florida House. (The winner of the Republican primary in West Pasco's District 36 will face nominal opposition in November.) Let's assume Pasco has a historically high Republican turnout of 30 percent. That means Fasano's race will be determined by just more than 10,000 people.

But voters across Pasco can cast ballots in County Commission races. And two campaigns — Districts 1 and 5 — are winner-take-all contests open to voters of all political stripes. Even accounting for an expected lower turnout from Democrats and people without party affiliation, those candidates could be vying for roughly 55,000 votes.

Commissioner Jack Mariano, running for a third term, said he "didn't want to play any games" by recruiting a write-in candidate to limit the primary to Republicans.

"I work for all the voters, and I'm happy they all get a chance to vote in my race," he said.

Fasano acknowledged that Democrats and independents might not have much motivation to vote in the primary, but he said they should cast a ballot anyway.

"This is the only opportunity they will have to help decide who our next commissioner will be," he said. "I'd hate for Democrats to be disappointed come November when they're asking why they're not voting for those two County Commission races."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Coming Sunday

A guide to everything on the Aug. 14 ballot, inside your Pasco Times.

Pasco officials hope high-profile races boost voter turnout 07/27/12 [Last modified: Monday, October 15, 2012 4:16pm]

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