Slow start to early voting in Tampa Bay area

Election official Joan Britnell places a sign to help point voters to the Pinellas County Building near downtown St. Petersburg on Saturday, the first day of early voting in the county.

LEAH MILLIS | Times

Election official Joan Britnell places a sign to help point voters to the Pinellas County Building near downtown St. Petersburg on Saturday, the first day of early voting in the county.

As Republican presidential hopefuls made their final frenzied push in South Carolina on Saturday, early voting began across much of Tampa Bay and Florida at a much slower pace.

It was anything but frenzied.

Seven people were waiting for voting to begin Saturday morning at Pinellas County's three early voting sites. By the time the polls closed at 4 p.m., only 138 people had cast ballots.

"It's very slow," said Nancy Whitlock, spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office.

But the county has received more than 39,000 mail-in ballots so "we really have 13.8 percent turnout," Whitlock said.

Voting in Hernando and Pasco counties, which also had their first day of early voting ahead of the Jan. 31 primary open only to registered Republicans, was higher than expected. Pasco had nearly 1,100 early votes, while Hernando saw 262 people.

Hillsborough County, which began early voting Jan. 16, had 1,260 ballots cast Saturday for a total of 7,942 votes in six days.

Early voting began Saturday everywhere except for five counties, including Hillsborough. Nearly 12,000 people across Florida had voted early going into Saturday and more than 185,000 absentee ballots had been cast, according to the Republican Party of Florida. Early voting continues through Saturday.

A sour economy was among the biggest issues weighing on early voters across Tampa Bay.

Tony Lewis, a 45-year-old unemployed St. Petersburg resident, said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the best candidate to right the struggling economy.

"I think that he has a plan to bring jobs back to America and make it easier for companies to bring jobs back to America," he said. "Absolutely, I believe that."

A RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Romney leading among Florida voters with more than 40 percent support. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is next with 22 percent.

Henry Solti of unincorporated Pinellas also cited the economy as a major issue, but cast his vote for Gingrich.

The 54-year-old software engineer said he admired Gingrich's frankness and said he had the best ability to make change.

"He doesn't come across as a polished politician like others do," he said. "He seems to speak from the heart."

Lynda Chomko, 60, and Tiffany Chomko, 25, of Palm Harbor gave that designation to Ron Paul.

"I believe in the man," Lynda Chomko said. "I'm tired of the lobbyists in Washington."

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or at (727) 893-8804.

Slow start to early voting in Tampa Bay area 01/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, January 21, 2012 8:40pm]

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