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A point-by-point rebuttal of Diane Stenle’s editorial criticizing early mail-in voting

in Peter/The Bay and the 'Burg by
Let’s start being honest about why the St. Petersburg Times seeks to downplay the significance of early, mail-in voting: if voters cast their ballots early, that will lessen the importance of the Times‘ coverage, especially its editorial recommendations. My point-by-point response to Diane Stenle’s editorial is in italics.

Candidates might as well throw out the play book on how to run campaigns for local offices in Pinellas County. It’s a whole new ball game. The game changer: mail balloting.

Stenle is absolutely right; candidtes running modern campaigns need to get with the program, not just in regard to early voting by mail, but with several other issues, such as how online technology is revolutioninzing the way candidates communicate with voters. Bottom line: the playbook to win an election is all but obsolete by the time the ballots are being counted. Smart candidates, with smart people around them, will know how to modernize their efforts.

Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark recently released statistics on the county’s first experience with significant mail balloting. The numbers from the March 10 elections are stunning.

The numbers should not come as a surprise to those who follow elections closely. The reporters and editors at The St. Petersburg Times once covered local elections smartly enough to forsee trends like increased early voting by mail. But they’d rather have writers work on blogs like Wingman (the ultimate guy’s guide to the Tampa strip clubs, gambling, drinking and cigar clubs in Tampa Bay. Yes, that’s actually what one of the nation’s ten best newspapers advertizes about itself) than devote better coverage to all-important municipal elections. These numbers also did not come as a surprise to me, since I have been writing about this issue for almost four years.

There were 10 municipal elections that day. Polling places were open as usual so people could vote in person, but 66 percent of the votes cast were sent in through the mail. In Safety Harbor, 62 percent of the votes cast were by mail; in Oldsmar, 74 percent; in Dunedin and Belleair, 65 percent; in Redington Beach, 69 percent; in Gulfport and Indian Rocks Beach, 59 percent; in Kenneth City, 53 percent; in Seminole, an unbelievable 83 percent. Only in Belleair Bluffs were more votes cast in person than by mail. “The voters of Pinellas County have embraced this convenient way of voting,” Clark said. Clark also believes that mail balloting increased turnout in the local elections, though that is difficult to prove. Turnout can be affected by a host of factors, including weather, the number of candidates running and whether there are any hot issues. Turnout in the March 10 elections ranged from a low of 12 percent in Oldsmar, where only one City Council seat was on the ballot, to a high of 40 percent in Belleair Bluffs.

No, you cannot statistically infer that ice cream sales increase in July simply because it’s hot. But common sense tells you that people don’t want a double-scoop in the middle of the blizzard. Common sense also tells us that early mail-in voting, even if it did not directly increase overall turnout, which I believe it did, worked. There are no Buddy Johnson-like horror stories about long lines or missing ballots. Having the ballots come in over a longer period did not turn Election Day into the equivalent of the day after Thanksgiving at a Best Buy store.

Neither is it clear that mail balloting is the reason for the 63 percent turnout in the county’s first all-mail election, an annexation referendum in two precincts in East Lake on March 10. The community was incensed at Oldsmar’s bid to annex it, as indicated by the outcome: nearly 92 percent voted against annexation. Surely, people who felt so strongly would have found their way to a polling place if voting by mail had not been available.

So it’s okay to infer that voters would have actually gone to the polls, but it’s not okay to infer that early, mail-in voting is responsible for the increase in overall turnout. Stenle’s point actually proves my point that voters already decided on a candidate or an issue will vote earliest. On the “hottest” issue of the day, the Oldsmar annexation matter, voters clamored to mail in their ballots.

However, it is clear from the percentage of mail ballots cast in the city elections that something has changed. Mail ballots traditionally have been called “absentee ballots” (even though in recent years you didn’t have to be absent on Election Day to get one). But absentee ballots never made up the majority of votes cast. Not even close. Why so many mail ballots this time? There was a change in the way mail ballots were requested and distributed.

Pinellas residents who voted at the polls in the November 2008 election were asked by poll workers if they would like to receive a mail ballot for future elections. Those who said yes — and there were thousands of them — received a ballot for the March 10 election in their mailboxes in mid-January. Add in the voters who requested a mail ballot by contacting the Supervisor of Elections Office, and the result was an army of mail voters able to overwhelm the number of people voting at polling places.

That’s nowhere near the whole story. The Republican Party has been pushing voting by mail for well over a decade now. Bush would not have won without a successful “absentee voter” program. Since then, successful candidates have been “working” absentee voters with remarkable success. Look at many of the winning local candidates, Jim Sebesta, Dennis Jones, Andy Steingold, Leslie Waters, and they have been employing a GOTV strategy that performs better with early voters than with traditional voters. Some candidates, like Frank Farkas and Kim Berfield, would not have won their races if it were not for their targeting of early voters.

And they voted early. Thousands of ballots were cast in the city elections long before Election Day on March 10. Candidates who were running their campaigns by the old play book were caught off guard when they discovered people were voting in January.

Any candidate who was caught off guard by increased early voting obviously had not spoken with enough elected officials, political consultants, or campaign volunteers to know that the game, had in fact, changed. Therefore, they deserved to lose. Take for example what happened in Seminole: A newcomer Pat Plantamura whipped an incumbent Tom Barnhorn because “she was using data and having access to helpers. The data set that was the most important, she said, was list of voters who got mail-in ballots. Plantamura said she targeted those people because the campaign knew they had the ballot in hand and would be prone to use it.” On the other hand, Barnhorn said his campaign consisted mostly of himself and his wife going door to door. Plantamura deserved to win.

I’ve spoken with elected officials and people planning to run for office and some of them are concerned. If people are going to vote so early, candidates must try to reach them earlier than they did in the past. And that means they must start fundraising earlier and raise significantly more money to pay the costs of an extended campaign.

Oh pleeeaaassseee. It’s the Times that makes the biggest deal about the horserace apect of a campaign. Their reporters covering the St. Petersburg municipal races are chomping at the bit to write about who’s raised what. But it’s not like these candidates raised all that much money. Leslie Waters, a former state representative ,raised less than ten grand and the Times needled her for that. And she was the leading fundraiser. The rest of the candidates ran for public office on budgets that barely got past three figures. You know what ten grand pays for? Not much. Barely enough to send out a mailer or two to the likely registered voters in a city. Yard signs are about three bucks a piece. A few thousand door hangers costs another thousand. Food and refreshments for, say, five events costs another grand. And these are shoestring budgets for shoestring campaigns. I say these local candidates are not raising enough money. Anyone with an interest in their city should be picking a candidate and donaing $10 or $20 bucks to them.

If campaigns become more costly and burdensome, will that discourage people from running for local offices? Will it confine the candidate pool to those who can afford to bankroll their own campaigns?

Mail balloting itself isn’t the problem. Voting by mail is convenient and easy and may very well increase voter turnout. The problem is that the supervisor of elections sent the bulk of the ballots out so early. Mailing ballots in January for an election in March leads to uninformed voting and increases the cost and length of election campaigns.

Stenle is correct that campaigns will become more costly, but it certainly didn’t discourage a diverse field from participating in the recent municipal elections. And with nine people running for mayor of St. Petersburg, the cost of campaigning doesn’t seem to be having an effect there.

As for mailing ballot in January for an election in March, that has a lot to do with sending ballots to those overseas, particularly our brothers and sisters in military uniform. Ms. Stenle, do you really want to do anything to hurt the chances of our armed forces personnel from casting their ballot?

For now, candidates planning to run in local elections later this year and early next year have little choice but to come up with new strategies for their campaigns. However, since mail balloting is a trend here in Pinellas and throughout Florida, what’s needed is establishment of a reasonable time window, set statewide by law or policy, that determines when elections supervisors may mail ballots to local voters.

That’s what we elect a Supervisor of Elections to do.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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