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  1. Florida Politics

Several counties scale back hours of early voting in primary

Published Jan. 24, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — When state legislators cut back early voting from 14 days to eight, they said the total number of hours would remain the same at 96.

But for next week's presidential primary in Florida, that's not the case. Some counties have as little as 48 hours of early voting before the Jan. 31 primary.

The revamping of election laws last year in House Bill 1355 gives local election supervisors the discretion to offer up to 96 hours of early voting and as few as 48 hours, the minimum required by law.

Many have cut back because only Republicans will be voting in many counties and the turnout is expected to be below 50 percent.

"We're not expecting a massive turnout," said Pasco County elections supervisor Brian Corley, who's offering eight days of eight-hour early voting shifts for a total of 64 hours. "I had to balance the budgetary needs of the county wisely with the anticipated turnout."

The scaled-back schedule drew criticism from Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist and author of the Election Smith blog. He calculated that the total number of hours of early voting statewide, 1,888.5, is a drop of about 30 percent from the last presidential primary in 2008.

Smith wrote that the new schedule "has led to fewer and uneven opportunities for Floridians to cast ballots in the state's January presidential preference primary."

Pinellas is offering 58 hours of early voting; Hernando offers 62 hours; Citrus, 48 hours.

Citrus County elections chief Susan Gill said the Republican presidential race is the only item on the ballot in the county.

"When you start to do the math, it doesn't make sense to be open that many hours for early voting," Gill said.

Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties are among the few offering the maximum 96 hours allowed by law.

Hillsborough is a special case: As one of five counties still under federal oversight for voting laws, it must offer 96 hours under the old 14-day calendar.

The switch to eight days of early voting is one of four changes in the hands of a three-judge federal panel in Washington. The other affected counties that still must offer 14 days of early voting are Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry.

Despite the shorter early voting schedule in the presidential primary, elections officials say they will offer the full 96 hours for the statewide primary in August and the general election in November.

Another factor in the decision by counties to curtail the hours of early voting is the growing popularity of voting by mail in Florida.

In Citrus, Gill said, more than 6,700 Republicans had requested absentee or mail ballots out of 41,000 eligible voters.

"More and more people are choosing to vote prior to election day," Gill said. "Aren't we lucky that we have three options?"

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

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