Like some of other professional sports teams in the area, the Tampa Bay Rays offered up the use of the team’s leased stadium as a voting site for this year’s general election.
But while Amalie Arena and Raymond James Stadium in Hillsborough County will soon be gearing up to be early voting locations, St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field will accommodate voters a different way.
Beginning Oct. 19, Pinellas County voters will be able to drive up to the Trop’s gates and drop off their completed mail ballots for the general election, the county supervisor of elections office announced Thursday.
“We wanted to join our Team Tampa Bay partners, the Buccaneers and the Lightning, to provide an option for our community to vote in person,” the Rays said in a statement, noting that the Trop had space for social distancing.
“Although that isn’t going to happen, we are pleased that our facility will be utilized as a mail ballot drop-off site.”
The Rays reached out to the Pinellas County Supervisors Office weeks ago with the idea of becoming an early voting site. But the elections office, which has long pushed the vote-by-mail option, asked instead to set up a drive-through mail ballot drop-off site outside the city-managed stadium near downtown, said elections office spokesman Dustin Chase.
The mail ballot drop-off location will be located at Gate 1 from Oct. 19 to Nov. 2, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. It will be the county’s 25th mail ballot drop-off location for the general election and the fifth that is set up as a drive-through.
“This is another example of our community coming together during a pandemic to have successful elections,” Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus said in a statement that noted she was excited to partner with the Rays.
Chase said that adding an early voting site at the Trop would have meant there were three early voting sites within 2.5 miles of each other. He said the county couldn’t justify having that many sites so close to each other and not having similar access in other parts of the county, which would be too costly.
“We feel a mail ballot drop-off location is the best way to serve our voters, who overwhelmingly choose to vote by mail,” Chase said.
With larger numbers of voters expected to cast ballots by mail this year than in previous general elections and with concerns from some about whether ballots sent through the mail will arrive on time to be counted, drop boxes have taken on increased importance.
Pinellas County has worked to offer drop boxes in sites across the county and is one of only a few counties who have so far opted to set up boxes in places other than early voting sites or supervisor of elections offices.
Nationally, there has been a push for sports arenas to open their buildings to voters, particularly as some states have seen large numbers of polling place closures amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Given their size, arenas and stadiums may be attractive options for their ability to provide social distancing and accommodate large numbers of voters, although other considerations such as their locations, accessibility for voters with disabilities and proximity to public transportation must also be factored in.
Hillsborough County’s elections office announced in recent days that it was adding the early voting sites at Amalie Arena and Raymond James Stadium, bringing the number of its early voting sites to 26.
The Orlando Magic opened its home arena as an early voting site for the general election, and discussions are in the works to open Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Field to voters, as well, according to WJXT in Jacksonville.
In Miami, the mayor’s decision to turn down an offer from the Miami Heat to use AmericanAirlines Arena as an early voting site — and to instead use a nearby museum whose campus includes a stop on the city’s MetroMover transit system — was met by condemnation by some Democrats and from the Heat itself.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested that election officials consider increasing early voting sites and extending hours of operation amid the coronavirus pandemic in order to help minimize crowds at voting locations.
During Florida’s August primary, about 560,000 voters opted to vote early, a smaller number than those who did so in the 2018 primary despite a higher number of voters casting ballots in the 2020 primary. But it’s not yet clear how busy early voting sites and Election Day polling places will be come Nov. 3.
Pinellas County currently plans to have five early voting sites for the general election, the same number as for other recent general elections, although this year it is moving one early voting site to St. Petersburg College’s Allstate Center because it offers more space.
For years, Pinellas, largely under longtime Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, who retired earlier this year, has aggressively and successfully promoted vote-by-mail ballots and resisted any big expansion of its early voting program.
The Pinellas elections office has said that adding early voting sites is expensive and may not increase turnout, and that mail-in ballots are more cost-efficient. The county in recent years has had one of the smallest numbers of early voting sites per voter of any county, although the office has said a more fair calculation would be to calculate the number of sites per a county’s square mile.
Only about 2 percent of the county’s voters in the August primary voted in person at an early voting site.
Still, Dan Helm, who is challenging Marcus for the supervisor of elections seat this November, said the county should have more options for people who want to vote early in person.
He said Tropicana Field would be a great site for early voting, given its large space that could allow for social distancing.
“With knowledge of these locations, people use them,” Helm said.
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