A New Year's resolution for the Florida Legislature: Make sure no campaign season is quite so protracted and annoying as 2010. How? Simply pass a commonsense law to shorten the window between when absentee ballots are mailed to voters in Florida and Election Day.
Federal law sets the deadline for when overseas absentee ballots must be mailed to voters: 45 days before Election Day. Many of the state's 67 county election supervisors exceed that deadline by a week or more to ensure adequate time for ballots to cross oceans and continents.
But there is no mandate on when to mail domestic ballots. Some supervisors, such as Pinellas County's Deborah Clark, drop them in the mail simultaneously with overseas ballots or soon after. That meant ballots for August's primary showed up in June for some voters. November ballots arrived in mailboxes in mid September.
Well-financed candidates have adapted. Now television viewers and snail mail readers, instead of suffering through just a few weeks of negative, sound-bite campaigning, suffer for another month or more. But far more dangerous for democracy is that many absentee voters, afraid of misplacing their ballots, rush to submit them weeks before much can be learned about candidates and their platforms through news coverage and debates.
It needn't be this way. Oregon, a state where elections have been conducted solely by mail for a decade, mails ballots just 14 to 18 days before Election Day. Voters face the same requirement as in Florida to return them to their county elections office by Election Day. In November, 71 percent of Oregon's registered voters had no problem responding in that tight window. Neither would Floridians who opt to vote by mail.
Clark, the Pinellas elections supervisor, conceded at a recent St. Petersburg City Council meeting that she may need to consider holding local mail ballots a little longer. After two years, she said, the "side effects" of sending local ballots out 45 days early are showing up: Some voters are casting their ballots before information about candidates and ballot issues is available, while others are not even casting ballots they get so early.
With other county supervisors jumping on the bandwagon to push voting by mail, the Legislature needs to establish a reasonable time window for local mail balloting that will apply statewide. Neither the voters nor democracy are well served by the current system.