Early mail voting can cost candidates money and votes in Pinellas County

Candidates might as well throw out the play book on how to run campaigns for local offices in Pinellas County. It's a whole new ball game. The game changer: mail balloting.

Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark recently released statistics on the county's first experience with significant mail balloting. The numbers from the March 10 elections are stunning.

There were 10 municipal elections that day. Polling places were open as usual so people could vote in person, but 66 percent of the votes cast were sent in through the mail.

In Safety Harbor, 62 percent of the votes cast were by mail; in Oldsmar, 74 percent; in Dunedin and Belleair, 65 percent; in Redington Beach, 69 percent; in Gulfport and Indian Rocks Beach, 59 percent; in Kenneth City, 53 percent; in Seminole, an unbelievable 83 percent.

Only in Belleair Bluffs were more votes cast in person than by mail.

"The voters of Pinellas County have embraced this convenient way of voting," Clark said.

Clark also believes that mail balloting increased turnout in the local elections, though that is difficult to prove. Turnout can be affected by a host of factors, including weather, the number of candidates running and whether there are any hot issues. Turnout in the March 10 elections ranged from a low of 12 percent in Oldsmar, where only one City Council seat was on the ballot, to a high of 40 percent in Belleair Bluffs.

Neither is it clear that mail balloting is the reason for the 63 percent turnout in the county's first all-mail election, an annexation referendum in two precincts in East Lake on March 10. The community was incensed at Oldsmar's bid to annex it, as indicated by the outcome: nearly 92 percent voted against annexation. Surely, people who felt so strongly would have found their way to a polling place if voting by mail had not been available.

However, it is clear from the percentage of mail ballots cast in the city elections that something has changed. Mail ballots traditionally have been called "absentee ballots" (even though in recent years you didn't have to be absent on Election Day to get one). But absentee ballots never made up the majority of votes cast. Not even close.

Why so many mail ballots this time? There was a change in the way mail ballots were requested and distributed.

Pinellas residents who voted at the polls in the November 2008 election were asked by poll workers if they would like to receive a mail ballot for future elections. Those who said yes — and there were thousands of them — received a ballot for the March 10 election in their mailboxes in mid-January. Add in the voters who requested a mail ballot by contacting the Supervisor of Elections Office, and the result was an army of mail voters able to overwhelm the number of people voting at polling places.

And they voted early. Thousands of ballots were cast in the city elections long before Election Day on March 10. Candidates who were running their campaigns by the old play book were caught off guard when they discovered people were voting in January.

I've spoken with elected officials and people planning to run for office and some of them are concerned. If people are going to vote so early, candidates must try to reach them earlier than they did in the past. And that means they must start fundraising earlier and raise significantly more money to pay the costs of an extended campaign.

If campaigns become more costly and burdensome, will that discourage people from running for local offices? Will it confine the candidate pool to those who can afford to bankroll their own campaigns?

Mail balloting itself isn't the problem. Voting by mail is convenient and easy and may very well increase voter turnout. The problem is that the supervisor of elections sent the bulk of the ballots out so early. Mailing ballots in January for an election in March leads to uninformed voting and increases the cost and length of election campaigns.

For now, candidates planning to run in local elections later this year and early next year have little choice but to come up with new strategies for their campaigns. However, since mail balloting is a trend here in Pinellas and throughout Florida, what's needed is establishment of a reasonable time window, set statewide by law or policy, that determines when elections supervisors may mail ballots to local voters.

Diane Steinle can be reached at dsteinle@sptimes.com

Early mail voting can cost candidates money and votes in Pinellas County 03/21/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 22, 2009 6:47am]

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