Very early voting starts as wave of Florida ballots go overseas

TALLAHASSEE — More than six weeks before Election Day, some voters are already casting ballots and helping elect Florida’s next governor.

County elections supervisors had until Saturday to mail hundreds of thousands of ballots to Floridians living overseas, many of whom are active-duty military personnel.

Those far-flung voters in Europe, Asia and elsewhere can’t see the constant barrage of TV ads in the race between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist. But they represent the first wave of voters in a general election in which more than half of all participating voters likely will have voted by the time polls open Nov. 4.

Domestic absentee or mail ballots can start going out Sept. 30, a full 10 days before the first of three live TV debates between Scott and Crist.

The last day to register to be eligible to vote is Oct. 6 and early voting in some counties will begin Oct. 20.

But this election is emerging as one in which more Floridians than ever prefer to vote by mail, the earliest method possible.

In the statewide primary election last month, absentees accounted for 41 percent of all votes, and people voting early accounted for another 14 percent. About 2 million people voted in the primary, which had a paltry turnout of 17.6 percent.

One reason for the surge in absentee ballot requests is that requests are valid for two general elections, and many voters voted by mail in the 2012 presidential election, when the turnout was much higher, 71.5 percent, so they will automatically be sent mail ballots for this election.

But turnout in non-presidential election years in Florida is historically lower, so elections officials expect fewer ballots to be returned.

By law, overseas and military ballots must be sent no later than 45 days before election day.

One pocket of intense activity for overseas and military ballots is Okaloosa County, just east of Pensacola, the home of five military installations including Eglin Air Force Base, one of the largest bases in the world.

Okaloosa Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux has sent nearly 6,000 absentee ballots to overseas and military voters, including about 1,500 sent by email. That’s more overseas ballots than Miami-Dade and Broward’s combined.

Lux keeps a world map on the wall at his office in Niceville with pins marking places he has sent overseas or military ballots.

“I’ve got a pin pretty much everywhere, except Antarctica,” Lux said.

Lux cited an outdated provision in state elections laws that requires overseas ballots to be returned either through the postal service or by a fax machine, which is on its way to becoming an anachronism as documents are increasingly scanned electronically and emailed.

“The guy in the foxhole doesn’t have a fax machine,” Lux said. “It’s outdated technology.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.