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Absentee vote requests are soaring

TAMPA — Here's one more sign that resentment over the snubbing of Florida voters in the presidential primary has dissipated.

Requests for absentee ballots are soaring in Tampa Bay area counties, a bellwether region in this hard-fought swing state.

Coupled with increases in registered voters, demand for absentee ballots is another indication that Florida is done with the squabble over its early primary, and could see record turnout.

"There's a lot of interest in the presidential race and a lot of excitement," said Greg Truax, co-chairman for Republican John McCain's campaign in Hillsborough County. "So it's not surprising that those numbers are up."

In Hillsborough County, 74,047 people have requested ballots to vote by mail as of midafternoon Thursday. That's about 11 percent of registered voters.

Slightly more than 12 percent of voters requested absentee ballots in 2004. With six weeks before the election, and requests coming in at well over 1,000 a day, Hillsborough should easily eclipse the 2004 absentee showing.

"We typically see a spike the closer we get to the election," said Jennifer Marks, a spokeswoman for Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson.

The numbers are more striking in Pinellas County, where Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark heavily promotes voting by mail over early voting. There, poll workers at precincts and early voting sites make it a practice to encourage those who visit to consider absentee voting.

Clark's has already received nearly 106,000 absentee ballot requests, compared with just over 100,000 in 2004. That's nearly 17 percent of registered voters, already nearly surpassing the rate of requests four years ago with more than a month to go.

"We believe that people are anxious to vote by mail, especially now that everyone is getting a paper ballot," said Clark's communications director, Nancy Whitlock. "They're getting the same ballot they would get at the polls."

A little more than 23,000 people have requested absentee ballots in Pasco County, where comparable numbers were not available for 2004. However, Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said nearly 35,000 cast absentee ballots that year.

With requests for absentee ballots coming in at a pace of about 800 daily and likely to climb, Corley said he fully expects to surpass the 2004 showing. He said about 85 percent of those who request absentee ballots return them.

"We're expecting a very high turnout, a very high return," Corley said.

Absentee ballots can be requested through Oct. 29.

There is one caveat to the numbers. Voters can check a box on request forms and ask to receive absentee ballots through two general elections, a change put in effect last year.

Previously voters could request ballots only for elections that take place within the year they made the request. So many of the people receiving ballots may be getting them because they have requested one in the past.

This is the second presidential election in which voters in Florida are permitted to vote by mail without having to show they will be out of town on Election Day, which is Nov. 4.

Historically, Republicans have enjoyed an edge in mobilizing voters to cast absentee ballots. Truax said campaign volunteers have been promoting mail voting at community events, during political rallies and in door-to-door campaigning.

Florida Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff said volunteers for his party are doing the same. He predicted a strong showing from both new voters and those voting by mail.

Voter anger over the initial refusal by the Democratic National Committee to seat Florida delegates because of the state's decision to hold an early primary has long worn off, Jotkoff said.

"We've seen a huge surge in Democratic absentee ballot requests," he said. "Normally the Republicans beat us on that. Floridians are excited about voting for Barack Obama and Democratic candidates up and down the ticket."

Times staff writer Will Van Sant contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Absentee vote requests are soaring 09/27/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 2, 2008 3:23pm]
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