Mayoral candidate Rick Kriseman says Mayor Bill Foster is suppressing voters by not allowing them to cast early ballots in the coming elections.
Kriseman held a news conference Wednesday in front of the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office to call on Foster and the City Council to authorize one week of early voting in a centralized location.
"I want to send a strong message to the mayor," said Kriseman, a former City Council member and former state lawmaker who is challenging Foster in the Aug. 27 primary. "Access to the polls should not be a line item in the budget."
Foster said voters can vote early now by picking up ballots at three Supervisor of Elections offices at least 45 days prior to the election. The ballots can be filled out in the office or returned by mail.
The 45-day option is better than the two weeks used for early voting, Foster said. The only difference, he said, is the ballot is given to a clerk instead of being scanned into a computer.
This process also saves $45,000 at each polling location, Foster added.
"It's better," the mayor said. "We see this as a huge advantage on our electorate."
Florida law gives cities the option to conduct early voting for municipal elections. Sarasota and Gainesville both allow early voting in person, Kriseman said.
Beyond absentee ballots, Kriseman said voters have changed their voting habits in recent years and don't want to wait in long lines on Election Day. He pointed to the masses who voted early in November.
St. Petersburg is not alone. All Pinellas County municipalities have opted out of early voting since 2009, said Deborah Clark, Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections.
The Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church and president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, also urged Foster to implement early voting. The cost, he said, should not be the factor.
"This is a priceless issue," Sykes said. "It's a moral issue."
Former City Council member Kathleen Ford also is running mayor, along with Paul Congemi and Anthony Cates.
Mark Puente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.