More voters than ever are using mail ballots, forcing candidates in the upcoming March municipal elections to confront a new political dynamic.
Candidates are adjusting by contacting voters earlier, which has strained campaign coffers. Other candidates have been caught short, with ballots in voters' hands before serious outreach efforts have begun.
That has led to concern that voters are returning their mail-in ballots without having taken a close look at the contenders.
"If I want to earn somebody's vote, I want to talk with them," said Ron Barnette, who is making a second run for Dunedin City Commission. "Heck, upon what basis are they to make a reasonable choice?"
For several years, Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deb Clark has championed mail-in voting, sometimes called absentee voting. It's a cheaper, more flexible alternative than setting up early voting sites, Clark has argued.
With the mail-in option, voters can get their ballots weeks before election day, and return them by mail or in person. The mail ballots get counted on election day, along with all those cast at the polls.
In the recent presidential election, mail-in ballots played an unprecedented role. In Pinellas 206,803 were requested and 184,164 were returned, nearly 40 percent of the total number of ballots cast in the election.
When voters ask for a mail ballot, they get signed up to receive one for all elections through the next two federal election cycles, unless they request otherwise. Some candidates say that many voters are unaware of this, and have been surprised to get a ballot in the mail for the upcoming municipal contests, which take place March 10.
Surprised or not, voters are using the option. Consider Seminole. Through Wednesday, 1,166 ballots had been returned out of 5,504 requested. Two years ago in Seminole, 1,330 total ballots were cast.
Then there's Dunedin. Also through Wednesday, voters had already returned 2,275 ballots out of 10,296 requested. Two years ago, the total number of votes cast in the Dunedin elections was 5,587.
In addition to Dunedin and Seminole, elections are scheduled in Belleair, Belleair Bluffs, Gulfport, Indian Rocks Beach, Kenneth City, Oldsmar, Redington Beach and Safety Harbor.
Historically high turnout for local elections appears possible.
The county elections office started mailing ballots Jan. 22. State law requires mail ballots requested by military members and overseas voters to be sent at least 45 days before an election. Domestic ballots are usually mailed around the same time.
It's standard campaign practice for candidates to get the names of mail voters. Candidates send mailers and other campaign efforts to them.
In municipal contests, city clerks are supposed to let candidates know when voters will start to get mail ballots. But Courtland Yarborough, who is making a second attempt at a Gulfport City Commission seat, said he didn't get the message.
He was left scrambling and has had to spend valuable money on mail-in voter outreach.
"It's a campaign being fought in the mailbox," Yarborough said. "Now you are spending your money on postage when you probably should be spending some money on print advertising."
In one of the Gulfport races, a contender withdrew after mail ballots had started going out. The city asked for revised ballots to be sent to those who had gotten ones with the name of the withdrawn candidate.
Yarborough and other Gulfport candidates worry that voters may be confused, despite instructions included in the second mailing on how to proceed, and cite the incident as another challenge presented by the rise in popularity of mail ballots.
Clark, the elections supervisor, said it is her job to get more people to vote, the job of candidates to know the process and the job of voters to make informed decisions. The protocols for handling mail ballot distribution allow ample opportunity for all three parties to do their part, she said.
"I think this is a trend that will continue," Clark said of the rise in mail-in use. "Voters do see this as a convenience."
The new dynamic may have one big benefit. Political consultant Jack Latvala, who is doing some work in the Dunedin races, said that with so many people making decisions early, the impact of last-minute attacks before election day is muted.
"I think it actually helps make elections a little cleaner," Latvala said.
Will Van Sant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4166.