Campaign 2016 intensifies across Florida as early voting begins in most areas

Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections worker Andrea West adds mail ballots to an inserter Sept. 22 at the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Service Center in Largo. (SCOTT KEELER   |   Times)
Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections worker Andrea West adds mail ballots to an inserter Sept. 22 at the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Service Center in Largo. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published Oct. 24, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — The pace of the election campaign in Florida will intensify Monday as early voting gets underway across most of the state.

Early voters will be greeted by poll watchers, partisan get-out-the-vote workers and TV crews as democracy emerges from the privacy of the kitchen table, where mail ballots are cast, to the bustle of the public realm.

In Miami-Dade, Broward, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and elsewhere, early voters will flock to libraries, city halls and community centers, swelling the statewide vote total after more than 1 million people have already cast mail ballots.

Those four counties will all offer early voting for 12 hours a day for 14 days.

That's the maximum early voting time allowed by the Legislature, which reduced early voting to eight days for the 2012 election in what critics called a partisan Republican effort to suppress Democratic turnout in a state both sides need to clinch the White House.

The Legislature reversed itself in 2013 and expanded early voting to up to two weeks and at more locations following a nationwide furor in 2012 in which some voters waited in line for up to seven hours to cast ballots.

"I believe we're going to have a very robust early vote," said Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer, who added that he would offer early voting for 15 days if state law allowed it.

All 16 sites in Hillsborough will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Sunday, Nov. 6.

Pinellas County, which aggressively promotes voting by mail, has early voting at five sites.

All locations are listed on election supervisors' web sites.

Statewide, 50 of 67 counties will begin early voting Monday, with the rest starting later in the week. Every county must offer early voting by Saturday.

The election is Nov. 8.

The Democratic nominee for vice president, Tim Kaine, will promote early voting at events in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

African-American pastors in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, St. Petersburg and elsewhere will be reminding parishioners to vote early on Sunday, Nov. 6, in an effort known as "Souls to the Polls."

Early voting traditionally has been most popular among Democrats, but the party has ramped up its efforts to get more people to vote by mail this election.

For that reason, early voting may attract fewer voters statewide than four years ago.

In the last presidential election in Florida in 2012, 28 percent of all ballots, or nearly 2.4 million, were cast at early voting sites.

Another 28 percent voted by mail and 44 percent voted on election day, according to the state Division of Elections.

Most supervisors of elections expect voting by mail to surpass early voting in this election.

"I do think early voting is going to be strong, but more people are voting by mail," said Citrus County Supervisor of Elections Susan Gill. "It's very convenient, and it's popular all over the county."

Many Democrats in Florida got a letter from President Barack Obama urging them to vote by mail.

As a result, Democrats have virtually wiped out the Republicans' historical advantage in the return of mail ballots in Florida. Through Friday, more Democrats than Republicans had been sent mail ballots — another new trend.

"We want to do well in all facets of voting," said Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party.

All counties also are scrambling to cope with a backlog of applications from new voters in an extra week that was ordered by a federal judge because of Hurricane Matthew.

In addition, the judge also ordered counties to give mail ballot voters with mismatched signatures another chance to produce a signature that will ensure that their votes be counted.

The start of early voting also will reveal whether any of those more than 86,000 new voters will have to cast provisional ballots because their applications have not been processed.

Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at Follow @stevebousquet.