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  1. Florida Politics

Keen to vote? Limber up, do your research, and prepare to spend some time with a long ballot

Early voting is drawing crowds to sites such as the Cyrus Green Center in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
Early voting is drawing crowds to sites such as the Cyrus Green Center in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Oct. 31, 2018

TAMPA — A jump in early voting and vote-by-mail shows the fervor to take part in the midterm election.

But a lengthy ballot threatens to sap some of the enthusiasm once voters finally get hold of the document.

In Hillsborough, for example, this year's ballot includes U.S. senator, governor, three state constitutional offices, sheriff, state Senate and House contests, circuit and appellate judges, County Commission and School Board, and soil and water district races.

And that's just Page 1.

Florida voters who are civic minded enough to fill in every circle must also wade through 12 constitutional amendments. And spare some sympathy for the people of Madeira Beach, who also risk writer's cramp with 10 local charter amendments on their five-page ballot.

RELATED: Tampa Bay Times 2018 Voter Guide

In Hillsborough, two proposed sales tax hikes to pay for schools and transportation fall at the bottom of the list, so groups campaigning for them suggest voting in reverse order.

"On a four page ballot, it's easy for voters to fall off, to decide they're going to vote for our governor or senator and then throw their hands up and not go all the way down the ballot," said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. "We want to emphasize voting from the bottom up."

The shortest ballot in the region is the one page, two-sided document in Pasco County, in part because the ballot there isn't repeated in Spanish. But Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley still expects voting will drop off down ballot.

RELATED: The political stakes get higher as early voting begins in Florida

The 12 constitutional amendments on this year's ballot are the most since 1998. Eight come from the state's Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years.

"There is a phenomenon called ballot fatigue," Corley said. "The longer the ballot, the more likelihood there will be a higher instance of undervotes."

Whether that ballot fatigue hurts or helps the chances of the two sales tax hikes passing is harder to gauge.

Groups on both sides of the Hillsborough sales tax transportation referendum have released campaign material informing voters that the initiative is on the last page. But the long ballot could mean longer lines on polling day and may deter potential supporters who don't typically vote in the midterm, said Stephen Neely, a professor in the University of South Florida's School of Public Affairs.

"Anything that thwarts enthusiasm among non-traditional midterm voters will likely depress voter turnout, and that would be detrimental to the passage of these amendments," Neely said.

Down-ballot drop off is a normal part of any election, said Craig Latimer, Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections.

Fewer votes are typically cast, Latimer said, in non-partisan races like school board and circuit judge.

That was true in the 2014 midterm. More than 373,000 votes were cast in Hillsborough in the gubernatorial contest between Rick Scott and Alex Sink — about 52,000 more than in the non-partisan countywide race for school board District 6.

Still, Latimer acknowledged it is a long ballot.

Those who vote by mail can fill out the ballot at their convenience. For those who still vote in person, he recommends studying up first by using the sample ballots mailed to every voter rather than showing up at the voting booth unprepared.

"I'm seeing people who didn't take the time to do that and they're walking in and taking 45 minutes," Latimer said.

The ballot for all Hillsborough and most Pinellas voters is two double-sided sheets.

Election officials conducted timing tests to help plan how many voting booths they would need in Election Day voting precincts. They expect it will take each voter 12 to 20 minutes. They plan to have 3,300 voting booths available — the same number in place for the 2016 presidential election.

"We put out everything we had in anticipation this will be an election with large turnout," said spokesman Dustin Chase.

Maria Camacho, 39, said it took "a lot of reading" and about 20 minutes to work through the ballot when she voted early on Wednesday at the West Tampa Library on Union Street.

"Most people are not going to read it," Camacho said. "I work in the legal field so I want to know what I'm signing."

Madonna Greco said voting staff advised her to make sure she filled in both sides of the ballot. She did her homework before voting but said people will find it tough to read through the constitutional amendments.

So does it matter if people leave some races blank?

It might, said Idelia Phillips, president of the League or Women Voters of Hillsborough County.

Each of the 12 proposed amendments to the state Constitution requires the approval of 60 percent of the votes cast on the proposal. Undervoting could mean some amendments fail to meet that threshold even if a majority approves.

"A non-vote is really a no vote," Phillips said. "With non-voting, you may not have enough to pass."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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