Elections officials and both political parties are urging voters to avoid long lines on Election Day by voting early, starting Saturday morning.
In Hillsborough County, 15 early voting sites will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Nov. 3. Voters can go to any of the polling places and vote a ballot that includes the local and state races in their home districts.
Pinellas and Pasco counties have the same early voting days and hours as Hillsborough.
"Nov. 6 is not the first day to vote, it's the last day to vote," said Craig Latimer, chief of staff to Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Earl Lennard. "What if you have a flat tire or the weather's terrible? You don't want to get shut out. Take advantage of it."
Early voting and mail-in balloting are gaining popularity in Florida and nationwide because of the convenience and flexibility they offer voters. Voters can cast ballots on their days off or when work is slow. With mail-in balloting, voters can take their time to study the candidates and ballot initiatives in their own homes. The ballots can be mailed in or dropped off at election offices.
In a first for Hillsborough County, more than 50 percent of the votes cast in the 2008 general election were either at early voting sites or mail-in ballots.
The Hillsborough elections office has had 170,000 requests for mail-in ballots, surpassing by 30,000 the number of requests in 2008.
In Pinellas County, which has just four early voting sites compared with Hillsborough's 15, voters have embraced mail-in voting, according to Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark. As of Wednesday, 291,000 Pinellas voters, or 45 percent of those registered, had voted with mail-in ballots.
One reason elections supervisors are happy to see all the early voting is the length of this year's ballot. The Florida Legislature placed 11 constitutional amendment proposals on the ballot, pushing it to three, double-sided pages. Hillsborough ballots also include two proposed changes to the county charter.
The state amendments are long and complex. It took the average voter 20 minutes to complete the ballot in studies done by the Pinellas elections office, Clark said. Some voters took as long as 40 minutes to vote the ballot.
"Particularly for voters who have not seen the ballot before they walk in, it's going to take awhile," Clark said. "We expect lines at early voting and on Election Day."
Clark said her office will give voters waiting in line copies of the constitutional amendments, cards and pencils so they can write down how they want to vote before they get in the voting booth.
A study by the Florida Senate released in October 2010 showed that early voting in the state increased from 18 percent of votes cast in the 2004 general election to 32 percent in 2008.
Yet the study also showed that overall voter turnout for those two presidential election years was roughly the same, at 74 percent. That runs contrary to the assertion by some Florida elections officials and voting rights advocates that early voting boosts turnout.
Traditionally, Democrats have done more early voting, and the state Senate study seems to confirm that. In the 2008 election, 52 percent of early voters were registered Democrats compared with 30 percent who were Republicans.
Democrats say that edge is why the Republican-led Legislature voted last year to reduce the number of early voting days from 12 to eight.
Republicans, on the other hand, have enjoyed the upper hand in mail-in, or absentee voting. In fact, some political observers credit the GOP's sophisticated efforts to maximize absentee votes, especially by seniors and military voters, for George W. Bush's razor-thin 2000 victory over Al Gore in Florida.
Darryl Paulson, political science professor emeritus at the University of South Florida, said the contrasting strengths of the two parties in early and absentee voting reflect the inherent differences in the mentalities of Democratic and Republican voters.
"Democrats have been more group-oriented as far as voting attempts to recruit black voters through black churches," Paulson said. "It has almost become an organizing effort in communities of Democratic voters to get the vote out early."
Republicans, on the other hand, are more individualistic, Paulson said.
"You don't often see the attempt to mobilize groups on the Republicans side as you do on the Democratic side," Paulson said.
This year, under President Obama's "Vote Now" campaign, Democrats have made a concerted effort to increase their party's absentee voting. They've seen some success. In Florida, absentee ballots turned in by Democrats trail those voted by Republicans by just 5 percent, compared with double-digit gaps in past elections.
In Hillsborough, which is considered a bellwether county by national election experts, Democrats have cast 31,534 absentee ballots compared with 28,924 by Republicans, with 12,860 ballots turned in by other registered voters.
Republican absentee voters have the edge in Pinellas, however, with 51,285 ballots cast compared with 48,775 by Democrats. Voters not affiliated with the two major parties turned in 23,854 absentee ballots there.
Obama press spokesman Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday that the campaign is targeting "less-likely voters" with its push for early and absentee voting. The effort is paying off, Psaki said, with Obama leading in early voting in key states such as Iowa and Ohio.
"Our view is that early voting is an opportunity to get people out who may not otherwise go to the polls on Election Day. … We saw a lot of success with that in 2008," Psaki said.
However, J. Edwin Benton, also a USF political science professor, has another theory.
"Obama was successful in getting them charged up four years ago, but it's hard to get them charged up this year," Benton said. "So you bring the ballot to their kitchen table."
Early Voting Locations
Bloomingdale Regional Public Library
1906 Bloomingdale Ave.
C. Blythe Andrews Jr. Public Library
2607 E. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Fred B. Karl County Center
26th Floor, 601 E. Kennedy Blvd.
Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library
3910 S. Manhattan Ave.
Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library
2902 W. Bearss Ave.
New Tampa Regional Library
10001 Cross Creek Blvd.
North Tampa Branch Library
8916 North Blvd.
Bruton Memorial Library
302 W. McLendon St.
Robert L. Gilder Elections Service Center
2514 N. Falkenburg Rd.
SouthShore Regional Library
15816 Beth Shields Way
Temple Terrace Public Library
202 Bullard Pkwy.
Town 'N Country Regional Public Library
11211 Countryway Blvd.
West Tampa Branch Library
2312 W. Union St.