Early voting for the Florida primary election on Tuesday has been under way for more than a week. A presidential commission formed after the 2012 election touted early voting as one of the best ways to get people involved in the political process and a way to ease Election Day congestion at the polls.
Pinellas County has three early voting sites that have been open eight hours a day since Aug. 16. According to the supervisor of elections website, 1,306 voters had cast early ballots as of Friday evening. That’s out of 617,925 registered voters!
After the state’s election embarrassment in 2012, there was a lot of criticism about early voting sites and hours. As a result, the Legislature gave elections supervisors more flexibility in days and hours, but I doubt it will have any effect on voter turnout.
One of the biggest complaints was the closing of early voting locations on Sunday. Last Sunday, 84 people cast ballots in Pinellas — 22 in Clearwater, 26 in St. Petersburg and 36 Largo. I’m guessing that amounts to about four voters for every poll worker. I would call this voter self-suppression.
There’s something about local, non-presidential year elections that just doesn’t seem to turn out voters. Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco once said that one of the most disturbing trends he saw during his political career was that fewer people voted in his last election in 1999 than in his first one in the early ’70s, even though the city had grown in population.
And it’s not just here. Last year in the Los Angeles mayoral election, only 23 percent of voters bothered to cast a ballot. It gets worse. Earlier this month, turnout was only 9.5 percent for a Los Angeles Unified School Board special election.
This prompted the Los Angeles Ethics Commission to consider offering prizes as an incentive to get more people to vote in local elections. Under their proposal, all voters would be entered into an Election Day lottery with $1,000 or more in winnings. Personally, I consider that very unethical.
The Los Angeles Times suggested that if officials “want to increase engagement and participation on election day — and they should — they would do better to focus on specific changes that make it easier to cast a ballot ...”
How much easier can we make it? In addition to early voting locations, you can cast an absentee ballot by mail. If you don’t trust the postal service, Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark also has a dozen secured drop-off sites where completed ballots can be deposited. The idea of letting people vote from home by computer has been floated as the ultimate voter convenience. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. The sophistication of hackers is simply too much to risk on the electoral process. Maybe someday.
In the meantime, the bigger problem is voters who simply don’t care enough, no matter how convenient it might be. It reminds of a 1972 cartoon by cartoonist John Fischetti of the old Chicago Daily News, where a man tells a pollster: “Frankly, I don’t care one way or the other about voter apathy.”
Sadly, neither do a lot of folks many years later.