Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark is working hard to persuade voters to cast their ballots by mail rather than at the polls. But when her aggressive push results in a poorly informed electorate, it appears to be more for her benefit than for the voters or for democracy.
At Clark's direction, Pinellas residents who voted in person in the November election were aggressively recruited to sign up to receive future ballots by mail. Many of those voters who agreed were no doubt surprised when, a mere 10 weeks later, they went to their mailboxes and discovered it was time to vote again. Ten Pinellas cities have local elections on March 10, but Clark started sending out mail ballots in mid January, almost two months before the election.
Some candidates were surprised, too. Local election campaigns don't typically kick into high gear until about six weeks before Election Day. But in mid January candidates started hearing from residents who had ballots and were frustrated that they had seen no information about the people running for office. Candidates scrambled to try to connect with those voters, and in some cases had to order more campaign materials — and incur extra costs — for a campaign season that grew by weeks.
If all voters would hold their mail ballots until close to Election Day and use the time to educate themselves about the candidates and issues, early mailing of ballots would not be such a problem. But many voters don't wait. Fearing they will lose their ballot (a replacement ballot can be requested) or their vote won't get counted (all ballots are counted on Election Day), they hurriedly mark and return their ballot. A vote cast too early can be one the voter wishes he could get back. Important information about candidates often surfaces in the final weeks of a campaign. And occasionally, candidates withdraw. Clark's office already had mailed the ballots for the Gulfport city election when a candidate dropped out.
In some cities such as Seminole, more people already have voted by mail than typically vote in a city election. Clark is celebrating the big response to her mail ballot campaign, even using her office's Web site to run updates on the number of mail ballots sent out — 32,867 as of Feb. 18 — and the percentage already returned — almost 25 percent overall, but up to 43 percent in some cities.
Clark says it is up to voters, not her, to educate themselves before they vote. But she certainly isn't helping. Sending out ballots almost two months before an election will produce more uninformed voters and lead to longer and more expensive election campaigns.
Mail balloting as a replacement for voting at a polling site has the potential to transform the election landscape, so it is important to get it right. With supervisors in other Florida counties also looking to promote mail balloting because it is cheaper and easier for elections administrators, state officials need to define how early the ballots may be mailed.