Romano: Absentee voting makes Pinellas an early winner in Florida primary

Published March 15, 2016

Fair to say, we have our issues in Pinellas County.

We don't see the value of mass transit, we're having trouble with too many neighborhood schools, and we take forever to make decisions about waterfront property.

But on this day, at least, we're the best the state has.

That's not a parochial or subjective argument. It's based strictly on the early-voting numbers that have been piling up around Florida. And nobody does it better than Pinellas.

Before the first polls open on election day, more than 31 percent of registered Republicans and Democrats will have already cast a ballot in Pinellas.

Among the seven most populous counties in the state, that is far and away the highest level of participation in mail-in and early-voting sites. Hillsborough, coming in around 24 percent, is the next best. Palm Beach is the lowest at 16 percent.

The difference in Pinellas is simple. Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark has been pushing absentee mail ballots since 2008, and voters have embraced the idea.

Pinellas is actually dramatically low in the number of ballots cast at in-person early-voting sites, but its mail-in campaign dwarfs everyone else's.

"It's just become habit for a lot of voters," Clark said. "They like the convenience, whether it's because they can't predict their work schedule on election day or they have kids in schools they're dealing with.

"I think you're going to start seeing the same thing around the state in the next few years. We just started our outreach programs sooner than some of the other counties."

For Clark, the advantages are twofold. It's far less expensive to deal with mail-in ballots than multiple early-voting sites, and it's much easier for voters to participate.

About 40 percent of all registered voters in Pinellas are currently requesting mail-in ballots, and the return rate on those will be close to 70 percent by the time the polls close.

As for the people without mail-in ballots? Less than 40 percent of them will likely make it to the polls today.

"Since 2009, the majority of our ballots come in through the mail," Clark said. "These aren't just words; these are the statistics."

Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida, says the older population in Pinellas also works in favor of absentee ballots. Senior citizens who don't like to drive or who struggle to stand in long lines are taking advantage of the ease of voting through the mail.

And though absentee ballots are increasing the number of voters in numerous states around the country — and thus encouraging democracy's most basic concept — Paulson points out that there are drawbacks.

Voters who mail their ballots too soon do not have the benefit of changing their minds as election day gets closer, and in primaries may actually cast votes for candidates no longer in the race.

"I personally hate early voting," Paulson said. "One of the most important factors in filling out a ballot is having as much information as possible. And if you vote two weeks early, you're depriving yourself of that information."

He has a point, although it could be mitigated by mailing a ballot in six days ahead instead of 16 days. The bottom line is more people are voting, and it's hard to argue that's a bad thing.