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Tuesday, Mar 20, 2018
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O’Neill: When early voting is problematic

As we know, even if we don’t admit it, democracy in this country remains a work in progress — no matter how much we lecture the rest of the world. No matter how much we exhort opposition commitment and valor in Egypt, Venezuela and Ukraine. No matter how much we decry the freedom-challenged plight of Cubans.

Too often our elections are characterized by low voter engagement and turnout. Recall that 22.3 percent of voters participated in Tampa’s mayoral election of 2011. It’s debatable what was more embarrassing: That barely one in five registered voters showed up — or that it was no surprise.

But turnout is only meaningful — in that American exceptionalism sense — when it’s informed. That’s a singular challenge amid a societal cacophony of partisan media hacks, disingenuous political action committees and bloggers who are their own editors, publishers and libel attorneys.

But at the risk of further discouraging turnout, wouldn’t it be worth considering some changes for early voting — at least when it comes to special elections? As in making it less routine. As in making it more informed.

For example, by Feb. 14 the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections had reported that more than 44,000 mailed ballots had been returned in the District 13 race among Republican David Jolly, Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby. Keep in mind that the Republican primary ended Jan. 14 and the special election is this Tuesday.

So, halfway through a two-month campaign, where debates and higher-profile interviews are more back-ended, 44,000 voters had already cast ballots. Positions on the Cuban embargo, for example, were not even broached until last week’s WEDU debate.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for accommodating voters and that includes making it more logistically convenient, including poll sites and hours.

But isn’t it imperative that we do everything in our power to produce a better-informed electorate? Haven’t we seen enough of what happens when mainly activists and acolytes vote?

When special elections — such as the primary and general vote in District 13 necessitated by the death of Rep. C.W. Bill Young — are such contracted exercises, wouldn’t it be prudent for voters who can to wait for debates, interviews and backgrounders to run their course before forwarding a ballot?

Stranger things have occurred than voters changing their minds by the time a campaign — and its candidate ads — had played out.

Voting is only half our democratic duty. The other half — especially in an era of dogmatically partisan, pseudo media ripe for the cherry-picking — is casting as informed a ballot as possible.

v v v

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who was “flattered” that his city was invited to bid on the 2016 Democratic National Convention, did the prudent thing by not letting flattery metastasize into a bid plan. Unless Al Austin switches parties, there’s not enough Democratic fund-raising heft around here to do it right. As a result, that could mean the city being at risk to make up any shortfalls incurred by the local host committee.

So, no thanks. Debbie Wasserman Schultz still has 29 other DNC-host-city candidates to solicit.

Buckhorn, a fiscally pragmatic Democrat, took the right course. This is not a politically partisan matter. What’s best for his city trumps what’s best for his party. He was a cooperative and amiable host to the GOP in 2012, and now he’s a responsible and polite non-host to the Dems in 2016.

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O’Neill: When early voting is problematic