Election Day in St. Petersburg may be still five weeks away, but the campaigns for mayor and three City Council seats are intensifying, with the Supervisor of Elections office on Tuesday mailing out more than 62,000 ballots to early voters.
Absentee voters have become a crucial group in recent elections. In the 2009 mayoral election, more than 20,000 votes were cast by mail - roughly 3,700 more than were cast at the polls.
With ballots arriving in mailboxes as soon as Wednesday, that effectively means every day is like Election Day, with campaign managers launching get-out-the-vote efforts, including targeted mailings, phone calls and door-to-door canvassing.
"A third of the election will be over within two weeks," said Nick Janovsky, campaign manager for District 4 City Council candidate Darden Rice. "If your campaign doesn't have the money and a strategic plan with canvassing in the field and phone banks to communicate with voters, you will lose an election."
In addition to the mayoral and City Council races, the Aug. 27 ballot includes a referendum on whether the city should scrap its controversial new pier project known as the Lens.
Mayoral Candidate Rick Kriseman's campaign began airing TV ads two weeks ago. This week, about 50 volunteers will man phone banks and work in his campaign office, said campaign manager Cesar Fernandez.
"We've been building for this week," said Fernandez. "It's the same strategy to get Rick's message out, but we'll be doing more of it now that people are voting."
Voting by mail has surged in popularity since state law was eased to allow residents to request a mail ballot without having to provide a reason why they could not vote in person. In the 2005 St. Petersburg primary election, little more than 1,000 voters were mailed a postal ballot. Just four years later, than number had swelled to more than 59,000.
Postal ballots are not counted ahead of Election Day, but the elections office tracks which residents have already voted. By law, that information is available to the campaign teams of candidates and political action committees, allowing the campaigns to target residents who have yet to vote with phone calls and mailers and avoid wasting time and money on those who have.
Mail ballots have also been heavily promoted by Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, and that may partially explain the growing popularity of absentee voting.
Absentee voters were responsible for roughly 54 percent of votes cast in the 2009 St. Petersburg primary. By contrast, only 23 percent of votes cast in the 2011 City of Tampa election were by absentee ballot.
Reaching early voters could also be crucial for the groups campaigning for and against the Lens.
Leaders of Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, the group that submitted more than 20,000 signatures to force a referendum on the pier, declined to discuss their campaign strategy.
Those behind Citizens for the St. Pete Pier, the pro-Lens group, said they plan to send a mailer to every household that will receive a mail ballot - roughly 44,000 homes.
"Every household that receives mail ballots will also receive information clarifying misperceptions about the new pier," said Jessie Landis, one of the leaders of the group.
Residents can return completed mail ballots or pick up a mail ballot at Supervisor of Elections offices at 13001 Starkey Road, Largo; 501 First Ave. N., St. Petersburg ;and 315 Court St., Clearwater.
Mail ballots can also be requested at www.votepinellas.com, by calling (727) 464-VOTE (8683), or by emailing email@example.com.
Ballots must be returned by 7 p.m. Aug. 27 to be counted.