A steady trickle of early voters turn out for final Sunday of balloting

Published Aug. 25, 2014

In-person early voting for the Florida primary ended in a slow crawl Sunday in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, the final day to cast ballots before Election Day.

Supporters waving signs and election workers outnumbered voters in some voting locations for Tuesday's primary, which determines candidates for governor, state House and other offices, in a return of Sunday early voting after a brief hiatus.

While fewer people opted to cast ballots through early voting than in 2012 and 2010, this year saw the highest total to date for voting by mail combined with early voting in Hillsborough County. More than 75,835 ballots were cast between the two options as of 6:20 p.m. Sunday, according to unofficial data from the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections.

"It's really the vote by mail that's made the difference," said Gerri Kramer, director of communications for the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections. "When you talk about convenience, there's nothing more convenient than that."

In all, 2,439 cast ballots in in-person early voting on Sunday, taking the early vote count to 19,401 during the past two weeks. In Pinellas County, where elections officials promote absentee balloting over early voting, 303 cast ballots at three early voting locations Sunday.

Among those who did vote Sunday was Hillsborough County Democratic Black Caucus member Dianne Hart. The caucus encourages people to vote early on Sundays in particular, she said, because more people are off work than other days.

"The more people vote early, the less headache it is on Election Day," said Hart, 59.

Early voting in Florida has been a bone of contention in recent years.

In 2011, state lawmakers cut the process from 15 days to eight, although they left the total number of hours at 96. That meant fewer, longer days of balloting. One controversial result was that most elections offices across the state canceled voting on the Sunday right before the ensuing elections. Florida Democrats and their allies cried foul.

The party went to court seeking relief, suggesting the new rule suppressed voting for Democrats, who do tend to favor voting in person rather than by mail. It contended the law was aimed at hurting Barack Obama's re-election effort in 2012

They urged Gov. Rick Scott to extend early voting after seeing the lengthy lines at early sites. But Scott declined.

Five counties including Pinellas then decided to open drive-up lines for voters to hand in their absentee ballots on the Sunday before Election Day. Sunday early voting resumed this year.

Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library was one of the busier sites Sunday, but many people there were visiting the actual library. Some of those who voted didn't realize it was an early voting location.

Kim Cressell, 43, said she was debating whether to vote Sunday or wait until Tuesday to learn more about the candidates.

However, she said early voting days on the weekend are crucial for those who can't vote during the workweek.

"Some people's jobs make it really hard to get away," Cressell said.

Last-minute voting at Pinellas County's three early balloting sites Sunday came at a slow but steady trickle. The vast majority of the more than 100,000 Pinellas voters who took advantage of the eight-day period cast their ballots by mail.

Early voting in person only surpassed 250 ballots on the final day. By contrast, Pinellas received nearly 7,500 absentee ballots in a single day. Even many of those who came out Sunday arrived with their absentee ballots filled out, and deposited them in walk-up or drive-through lines.

"I know my vote is in," said Karen Brant, 47, of Dunedin, after delivering her choices to the election office in downtown Clearwater. "I have the voting experience without the wait."

Staff writer Caitlin Johnston contributed to this report.