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Light but steady voter turnout in Tampa Bay primaries as mail ballots surge

Elections officials have made pandemic preparations for in-person voting.
Pinellas School Board member, Rene Flowers, who is running for Pinellas County Commission District 7, arrives at Galilee Missionary Baptist Church to cast her ballot, on voting day. Poll worker, Gloria Nelson, 67, of St. Petersburg, provides Flowers with hand sanitizer before entering the polling station. Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Pinellas School Board member, Rene Flowers, who is running for Pinellas County Commission District 7, arrives at Galilee Missionary Baptist Church to cast her ballot, on voting day. Poll worker, Gloria Nelson, 67, of St. Petersburg, provides Flowers with hand sanitizer before entering the polling station. Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Aug. 18, 2020|Updated Aug. 19, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic reshaped the way many Florida voters cast their ballots in Tuesday’s primary but didn’t dampen voter enthusiasm, with counties in Tampa Bay reporting higher turnout than in the 2016 primary and close to the turnout of the 2018 primary.

A flood of mail ballots to county elections offices in recent weeks offset lower numbers of voters at in-person voting sites in Tampa Bay and counties across the state, according to preliminary numbers Tuesday evening.

Florida had reported roughly 3.7 million votes in the primary as of about 9 p.m., with more votes to still be counted. That easily surpassed the turnout in the 2016 primary election, the last presidential year, which typically produces more turnout for primaries.

In Tampa Bay, counties reported that about two-thirds of their voters, or more, had cast ballots by mail. Democrats led the surge in mail ballots, although in Tampa Bay, a larger proportion of Republicans also opted to vote this way compared with two years ago.

The rest of the primary voters showed up in person to cast ballots, with many saying they were not deterred by the threat of the coronavirus or trusted in-person voting more than mail ballots.

There were differences in turnout among counties, unsurprising given that the primaries include many local races that may garner different levels of enthusiasm.

Pinellas County reported a turnout rate of more than 30 percent, an increase compared to the 2016 primary and higher than the turnout in Hillsborough or Pasco counties, according to early numbers. It saw a higher turnout rate among Democrats than among Republicans, a reversal from the 2016 primary.

Turnout is typically much lighter in primary elections than it is for general elections. Primaries in the state are closed, meaning in most cases that only registered Democrats may vote in Democratic primary races and only registered Republicans may vote in Republican primary races.

Still, the August primary can offer some indication of the level of voter enthusiasm ahead of November. And it provided a test run for elections officials and others as the pandemic has upended the way elections look and feel.

Elections officials had spent months gearing up for an expected surge in mail voting and putting health and safety measures in place for in-person voting. Counties worked to shore up their numbers of poll workers after some saw large numbers drop out during March’s presidential preference primary.

Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed counties to begin processing mail ballots earlier than what is usually allowed under state law.

Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee said Tuesday that local officials “have been working diligently” to canvas and count the ballots received ahead of time to be prepared to announce the results at the end of the day.

In general, voting appeared to go fairly smoothly, with polling places opening on time and no major instances of poll worker no-shows. (In Leon County, Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley said a storm knocked out power at five polling places and caused some other issues, but backup generators and backup plans meant disruptions were minimal.)

In the mid-afternoon, voters trickled in and out of the Coliseum in St. Petersburg, one of the city’s busiest polling locations.

In the parking lot, judicial candidate Liz Jack and school board candidate Caprice Edmond held signs with other campaign volunteers under skies that threatened to rain but held. There were usually more people in the campaign cluster than inside the Coliseum voting at any given time.

In South Tampa, Tom Kraemer said voting at his polling place at Good Shepherd Lutheran was “quick and painless.”

He said he felt better about voting in person than by mail, saying he worried about lost mail and about the security checks for mail ballots.

Concerns about mail voting and about putting ballots in the hands of the Postal Service was a common theme among some voters at polling places Tuesday morning.

That can be at least partially traced to attacks on mail voting and on the Postal Service by President Donald Trump.

Trump, who himself has voted by mail, has repeated an unfounded claim that expanded mail voting opens up a “tremendous potential for voter fraud.” Experts say fraud is rare. He has also made comments casting doubt on the Postal Service’s ability to handle the numbers of ballots anticipated to go through the mail nationwide this year.

“I don’t want fraud going on. I always vote in person,” said Teresa Taylor, 55, as she left her polling place in Land O’ Lakes on Tuesday morning.

Danielle Johnson, 64, also said Trump also influenced her to appear in person, but not because she has lost any faith in the vote-by-mail process or the U.S. Postal Service. Rather, she didn’t want to give him a reason to argue her vote didn’t count.

“Just so that he can’t say ‘Oh these votes are fraudulent,’” she said through her mask.

Evelyn Rodriguez, 60, had a different reason for voting in person Tuesday. A longtime mail-ballot voter, she said this time her mail ballot never arrived. So she headed to her precinct polling site at the Land O’ Lakes Recreation Center in Pasco County.

Rodriguez said she still plans to vote by mail in the future, saying the disruption this year was just an inconvenience.

“I will vote any way I can, (mail) ballot or no ballot,” she said.

Tampa Bay Times staff writers C.T. Bowen, Josh Solomon, Divya Kumar, Margo Snipe, Tracey McManus and Steve Contorno and Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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