The number of Republican ballots that already have arrived at the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office suggests voter turnout in the Congressional District 13 special election primary could be uncommonly high, elections officials say.
David Jolly, a former lobbyist and aide to former Congressman C.W. Bill Young, State Rep. Kathleen Peters and Mark Bircher, a commercial pilot and retired marine brigadier general, are competing in the Jan. 14 primary. The winner will face Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby in the March 11 general election.
Mail-in voting began in late November for registered Republicans in the closed primary. As of Friday, about 18,500 voters had returned ballots, which puts the turnout at 10.9 percent. Elections officials expect that number at least to double, given the high number of absentee ballots still out and the number of likely voters in the nine-day early voting period that starts Saturday, as well as primary day voters.
The numbers are pretty good for a primary, Deputy Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus said, and could exceed the August 2012 primary prior to the general election. Primaries in special elections typically have more anemic turnout than regular election cycle races. By contrast, Pasco County’s special election primary in October to fill Republican Mike Fasano’s state House seat had a 10.3 percent turnout.
“We’re excited about this election,” Marcus said. “We’re very pleased to see this level of participation.”
Political observers say the 78,400 ballots requested by voters is relatively high for the primary.
“Taken in context with the timing of the election, that’s a respectable number,” said University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett.
The high interest could be because of the national attention the election is getting. The New York Times ran a story on the special election on Christmas Eve, and other national media outlets have turned their attention to it in recent weeks. On the Republican side, at least one national celebrity, Bob Barker, has weighed in on the race — he’s featured in an ad endorsing Jolly.
“It’s the only race in town, so to speak, so all national attention is going to be focused on it,” said Darryl Paulson, a political science professor emeritus at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
The race also could serve as a litmus for the two major parties, especially ahead of November’s midterm elections. The District 13 seat has been held by a Republican since the 1950s, and Young’s embrace of local issues and projects since he was elected in 1970 made him popular enough on both sides of the aisle to get re-elected 20 times. This, despite an increase in the number of Democrat and Independent voters during that time.
“You’ve got this uncertainty that we never have had in the past 60 years,” Paulson said.
When it comes to the primary, however, he said not to be too optimistic about the turnout.
Primaries, especially in special elections, tend to draw out voters who are heavily engaged in local politics, he said. While an ambitious but average voter may request an absentee ballot, he or she may not have the enthusiasm or time to follow through.
“How many turn them in remains to be seen,” Paulson said.
The timing of the election is uncommonly awkward because of the holiday season, and could also negatively impact turnout. Candidates have had little time to make their case to voters since the seat became open following Young’s death in October. And the bitter battle between Peters and Jolly over the Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare,” may have taken its toll on voters unfamiliar with the three candidates, given that little else has been debated.
Results of a St. Pete Polls survey of Republican voters conducted Monday showed Jolly ahead, with 39 percent of voters in favor — about 11 points ahead of Peters at 28 percent, and 21 points ahead of Bircher with 18 percent. About 15 percent remain undecided, according to the poll.
About 43 percent of the voters in the polls said they have already cast a ballot.
“A lot of voters probably don’t feel like they have much info yet,” Jewett said, which explains why some 60,000 have not been returned.
Jolly, the earliest announced candidate, launched his campaign on Nov. 7. His opponents followed in the ensuing weeks, which gave them only a couple of months to campaign. Under normal circumstances, candidates have several months to raise money and to campaign.
“Campaigning largely gets lost over the holidays,” Jewett said. “People aren’t paying attention to politics and largely don’t want negative campaigning impeding on their holiday.”
The candidates have a lot of work to do, and not a lot of time. All three are expected to participate in a candidate forum Thursday in Pinellas Park.