South Florida

Signs point to ‘highly energized’ voters as early voting begins

Here’s what it looked like as early voting got underway in the presidential primary 4 years ago. Steven Gonzalez, right, prepares to cast his ballot at the Elections Department in Doral, Jan. 21, 2012.
Here’s what it looked like as early voting got underway in the presidential primary 4 years ago. Steven Gonzalez, right, prepares to cast his ballot at the Elections Department in Doral, Jan. 21, 2012. adiaz@miamiherald.com

TALLAHASSEE As hundreds of thousands of Florida voters return mail ballots with their choices for president, a second wave of balloting begins Monday with the start of early voting in many large counties.

Early voting sites open Monday in 16 of 67 counties, including Miami-Dade and Monroe, while Broward and Palm Beach will start early voting a week later, March 5.

Counties must offer early voting for at least eight days and can expand it to 14 days, including the Sunday before Election Day, March 15. Most counties will offer only the minimum eight days because early voting is slowly losing its luster as more people vote by mail.

Across Florida, the populist phenomenon of Donald Trump, Marco Rubio’s hometown appeal, the prospect of Hillary Clinton as the first female president and the insurgency of Bernie Sanders are generating a level of enthusiasm that’s expected to produce a much higher turnout than four years ago.

“I’ve never seen such a level of informed and engaged voters,” said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. “This is like nothing we’ve ever seen for a presidential primary.”

Elections officials saw it coming after they were swamped by a late surge of unaffiliated voters switching to a major party so they could vote in the primary.

In Miami-Dade, the Florida county with the most voters, early voting will be available for 14 days at 20 sites. But the percentage of people voting by mail nearly tripled between the 2008 and 2012 presidential primaries — a trend that’s expected to continue.

“Absentee balloting continues to gain favor in Miami-Dade County as a popular voting choice,” said Carolina Lopez, Miami-Dade’s deputy supervisor of elections.

Florida voters will see a ballot listing nine presidential candidates who have suspended their campaigns: eight Republicans and one Democrat.

None of them formally withdrew from the race before the ballots were printed, so votes cast for those candidates will be tabulated and reported.

The most recent candidate to suspend campaigning was former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Corley said Pasco voters have called his office, asking to vote again after choosing a candidate who dropped out, but it’s too late.

“No can do,” Corley said. “The law is very clear. You can’t vote twice.”

The big advantage to early voting is that voters can vote close to home or work and they can vote on weekends, too.

Voting by mail is convenient — but it has risks. More than 1.7 million ballots have been mailed to voters, but thousands of them will likely be rejected as invalid because voters’ signatures do not match the signatures on file or they neglected to sign their ballot envelope as the law requires.

“It’s not a cost-free shift to vote by mail,” said University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith, who tracks statewide voting trends. “There’s a different way of verifying your identity and it carries a burden.”

Smith crunched the numbers of the first 433,000 mail ballots cast and found that nearly 4,500, or slightly more than 1 percent, were flagged by county elections officials as potentially invalid because of voter mistakes.

A disproportionately large number of those flawed ballots are from Miami-Dade, where the rejection rate was running at 5 percent, far higher than any other county.

Many mistakes can be fixed. For example, a voter who returns a mail ballot with no signature on the envelope has until 5 p.m. the day before Election Day to go to a county elections office and sign it for the vote to count.

State law requires county election supervisors to notify voters that their ballots were rejected, but only after the election.

In Miami-Dade and most other counties, a three-member canvassing board will make the final decisions on whether disputed mail ballots will count.

As the early voting period begins, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties once again have starkly different schedules that reflect different ways of serving voters.

In Pinellas, Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark aggressively promotes voting by mail and more people vote that way than at an early voting site or on Election Day.

“We’ve been doing this longer than anybody,” Clark said.

Early voting will take place for a minimum of eight days at her three offices in St. Petersburg, Largo and Clearwater.

Across the bay in Hillsborough, Supervisor Craig Latimer will offer the maximum 14 days of early voting at 15 locations. “We encourage people to vote early and not wait until the last minute to vote,” Latimer said.

Both counties will offer what’s known as “souls to the polls” — early voting on Sunday, March 13, an option that has been popular in past elections with African-American voters following church services.

Seven other counties will offer early voting on March 13: Bradford, Broward, Charlotte, Duval, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach.

In Pensacola, Escambia County Supervisor of Elections David Stafford decided to offer eight days of early voting for nine hours a day at seven locations.

Stafford noted that more than one-fifth of county voters can’t vote in the presidential primary because they are not Republicans or Democrats (Florida is a “closed primary” state).

In the past two presidential primaries in 2008 and 2012, Stafford said, the county ballot included referendum questions open to all voters, but that’s not the case this time.

“One size does not fit all,” Stafford said. “We believe this schedule, combined with robust, no-excuse absentee voting and a 12-hour Election Day will afford all eligible voters ample opportunity to cast a ballot in this election.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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