1. Florida Politics

Surprise continues over Sunday voting hours in Pinellas

Published Nov. 6, 2012

On Florida's last day of early voting, 18-year-old Desiray Henry arrived at a polling station in St. Petersburg to cast her first presidential vote. Warned that the wait would be three hours long, she packed it in, like many others in line.

No one told her she could try again on Sunday, she said, or offered her an absentee ballot, which she could have filled out and returned on the spot.

Come Monday afternoon, she was back in line at the Supervisor of Elections Office in downtown St. Petersburg.

Like a handful of other counties across Florida, Pinellas opened its doors on Sunday to accommodate the swell of people looking to avoid Election Day lines. The state shortened the early voting period this year, but even though the early voting deadline had passed, election supervisors found a way to unofficially extend it.

Their solution: in-person absentee voting, an oddly contradictory term for picking up a paper ballot, filling it out and handing it in.

This practice also is expanded in South Florida as a result of a lawsuit by the state Democratic Party. Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties will offer in-person absentee voting today until polls close at 7 p.m.

Hillsborough County's Robert L. Gilder Elections Service Center also was open on Sunday for voting. Supervisor of Elections Earl Lennard said it was not intended as a way to skirt the limitations on early voting.

His staff already was working that day, he said. "People come by, they look in the windows, they see you there. What are you going to do? You've got to serve them."

About 600 people picked up or dropped off ballots on Sunday, Lennard said.

In Pinellas, 750 voters got ballots on Sunday and 2,103 returned them.

But many candidates, get-out-the-vote organizations, and voters said they never got the message.

"I just think with everything going on in the election, it kind of slipped between the cracks until it got to Sunday," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who is up for re-election. "That option certainly wasn't emphasized as much as early voting was."

Welch learned about Sunday voting on Saturday night from a question on his Fac ebook page. He called the Supervisor of Elections Office to confirm that it was an option and then alerted his followers.

"I don't know how we missed that," he said.

St. Petersburg League of Women Voters president Darden Rice said that while "the last minute valiant effort on behalf of the county is deeply appreciated," her organization had no idea Sunday voting was an option.

About 1 p.m., Sunday, nearly five hours after the supervisor of elections opened three voting locations, the Obama campaign sent out an email with the subject line: "Big News: Pinellas County voting hours extended today and Monday."

None of this should have been big news, said Nancy Whitlock, a spokeswoman for Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark.

In mid-October, Whitlock sent out a news alert listing the hours election offices would be open. It included the Sunday and Monday after early voting had officially ended, though it did not say that mail ballots would be available for pick-up.

Clark made the decision to open on Sunday long ago, Whitlock said. "Because the ballot is so long and because it's such a big election, everyone wants to vote and we want to be as open and accessible as possible."

Supervisors of elections in Pasco and Hernando counties kept offices closed Sunday, but opened for in-person absentee voting Monday. Brian Corley, the supervisor of elections in Pasco, said he and his staff needed Sunday to prepare for Election Day and voters didn't seem to mind.

"I did not have one person call or email me to say I tried to vote absentee and your office wasn't open," he said.