TALLAHASSEE — Early voting appears to be catching on, according to a survey of elections supervisors who say millions already spent on gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races may be raising the level of early interest across the board.
With the Aug. 24 primary looming and with it the fates of both Democratic and Republican hopefuls, supervisors say that early voting numbers are up from 2008, an increase they attribute to high profile statewide races and some heated local contests driving voters to the polls.
Florida Division of Elections officials say nearly 350,000 voters cast ballots by the end of voting Saturday. The statewide figure does not include absentee ballots, which if history holds true will more than double the voting totals.
“The candidates are energized and voters are more energized,” said Jennifer Edwards, supervisor of elections in Collier County, home of Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott.
“Our numbers are up and I expect more than 30 percent of primary voters to cast ballots early.”
And, Edwards said, absentee ballot requests are up more than 52 percent.
Florida officially began early voting in 2004 as part of reforms made in response to problems experienced during the historic 2000 presidential race. To help increase voter participation and avoid Election Day bedlam, lawmakers relaxed absentee ballot requirements and allowed local supervisors to open early voting sites 15 days early.
Florida’s early voting period ended over the weekend, when supervisors were allowed to keep polls open for a total of eight hours.
In Leon County, elections supervisor Ion Sancho predicted that 35 percent of voters in the primary will have cast ballots early, a modest but noticeable increase over the 2008 primary cycle. A handful of highly contested local races including a contentious mayoral race appear to be drawing voters to the polls.
“We’re seeing increased turnout at a substantial clip compared to the last election,” Sancho said. “I can’t pinpoint if it’s local races or national races but the local races are definitely catching some local interest.”
Touted as a way to increase voter participation, early voting has not proven to be the democratic boom that backers claimed, said Charles Bullock, University of Georgia political scientist who studies voting habits.
“It doesn’t appear to bring more people to the polls,” Bullock said. “What it tends to do is give people who have already made up their minds a more convenient way to vote.”
Regardless of its ability to bring in more voters, local supervisors say increased use of early and absentee has made their jobs a little easier at a time when tight budgets are forcing them to reduce election staff and cut back on poll worker training.
“It makes it less hectic on Election Day, that’s for sure,” said Kay Clem, Indian River County supervisor of elections and former president of the statewide association of election supervisors, who has had to make substantial budget cuts over the past few years.
“It has definitely smoothed out the process.”
E-mail Michael Peltier at email@example.com.