As votes were being counted in New Hampshire’s presidential primary last Tuesday, more than a million ballots were flooding Florida mailboxes, headed to voters nearly a full month before the state’s presidential preference primary.
County elections supervisors are already seeing high voter interest, and they expect a higher than average turnout. This is the first Florida presidential primary since 1980 that features unpredictable and competitive races in both parties, along with the presence of home-state candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio to heighten enthusiasm.
“There’s definitely a buzz out there,” said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. “People seem to be focusing on it.”
The election in Florida is well underway, and more people will vote earlier than ever because of the growing popularity of voting by mail or what used to be called voting “absentee.”
Combined with early voting, which will start in some counties on Feb. 29, it’s a realistic possibility that more than half of all ballots will be cast before polls open across Florida on Election Day, March 15.
Pinellas County alone mailed 206,000 ballots Tuesday, fully a third of the county’s registered voters and more than any other county in the state. Many of them are taking advantage of a law that makes mail ballot requests valid for two consecutive general elections.
“We’re seeing the accumulation of several election cycles,” said Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, who has promoted voting by mail as a convenience since 2008. “The word has spread, and once people do it by mail they tend to continue doing it.”
Pinellas voters can check a box on ballot envelopes indicating their preference to keep getting them by mail, and hundreds of mail ballots had arrived at the elections office by Friday.
Miami-Dade mailed more than 157,000 ballots last Tuesday, and Broward plans to ship 102,000 mail ballots on Feb. 16. Palm Beach mailed 83,000 ballots Friday.
Many voters who ask for mail ballots and don’t return them will be getting phone calls from campaigns of presidential candidates, a process known as “chasing” designed to get as many votes counted as possible.
Florida’s presidential primary comes as the state is experiencing an historic surge in voters with no party affiliation. Those voters cannot vote for Republican or Democratic presidential candidates because Florida is a “closed primary” state.
Election supervisors say they are getting calls from some of those voters, unhappy about being barred from participating in a party primary for president.
In one of Florida’s biggest college towns, the capital city of Tallahassee, Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho mailed blue and red postage-paid cards to all 38,000 unaffiliated voters in Leon County to make it easier for them to join either party so they can vote in the primary.
It’s the first time Sancho has done such a mass mailing, and by Friday, more than 1,000 postcards had already been returned. They must reach the elections office by Tuesday for those party switchers to be able to vote in the primary.
“The response has been overwhelming,” Sancho said. “All indications point to a very high level of interest in this primary.”
Unaffiliated voters can vote in nonpartisan elections on the primary ballot, such as municipal elections and local referendum questions.
Hillsborough mailed more than 93,000 ballots Friday. In the last presidential primary in 2012, 170,000 Hillsborough voters cast ballots by mail.
“It’s more convenient than going to a polling place. A lot of times there are long lines, and you’ve got to sit there and wait and find parking,” said Mark Johnson, 49, of Tampa, a construction project manager who’s waiting for his absentee ballot to arrive.
Johnson, who moved to Florida from Colorado in 2004, is one of those unaffiliated voters. After realizing that he can’t vote in a party primary, he said he plans to turn Republican by Tuesday’s deadline so he can vote for either Rubio or Ted Cruz.
Across Florida, voters can request mail ballots through their county election web sites and track the status of their ballot that way, too.
When voters see their ballots, they will find several presidential candidates listed who have suspended their campaigns, including Democrat Martin O’Malley and seven Republicans.
The Republicans who have stopped campaigning but who are still listed on the Florida ballot are Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum.
All of their names are still on the ballot because they suspended campaigning after the deadlines to print the ballots. None formally withdrew, a decision that requires notifying the state Division of Elections.
“Suspending your campaign is not the same as withdrawing under the law,” said Corley, the Pasco elections supervisor. “So voters need to do their research to see which candidates are still active.”
Like most county elections officials, Corley is seeking to improve voter participation.
About 150,000 Pasco households received inserts with their utility bills, reminding them of election dates, the need to bring a photo ID to the polls and the importance of updating their voting addresses online or by phone before Election Day.
Florida’s first presidential preference primary was in 1972, when Democrats favored Alabama Gov. George Wallace in a rout over the party’s eventual nominee, George McGovern, a race that also saw the strongest turnout for a Florida primary of 58 percent.
It has been downhill ever since.
The turnout was 43 percent in both 1980 and 1988. It was 42 percent in 2008 and 41 percent four years ago.
Key election dates
Tuesday: Last day to register to vote or to change party affiliation to vote in primary.
Feb. 29: First day election supervisors can count mail ballots.
Feb. 29: First day early voting can begin.
March 9: Last day a voter can request a mail ballot.
March 13: Last day early voting can occur.
March 15: Election Day.