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Inside St. Petersburg’s municipal election

Mark Parker



A look inside the canvassing boardroom just after Ken Welch was announced as the 54th mayor of St. Petersburg. Photos by Mark Parker.

From the moment I pulled into the parking lot, it was clear that reporting on Tuesday’s St. Petersburg municipal election from the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office was going to be an experience distinctly different from covering the August primaries.

Although I arrived at around 6 p.m. for both, the number of cars filling the Largo lot had increased exponentially. There were also more police cruisers parked out front than I remembered. To my surprise, a steady stream of voters briskly walked in and out of the doors.

Voters had until 7 p.m. to drop off mail ballots – those not sent in time – at any of the three Supervisor of Elections offices. Judging by the nursing scrubs and work uniforms, I deduced that residents of St. Pete were dropping off their mail ballots before driving home for the day.

“Things have been great today,” said Dustin Chase, Communications Director for the elections office, clearly excited for the evening’s events. “We’ve had an incredible turnout for a St. Pete municipal general election. This might be one of the highest turnouts ever.”

I was once again surprised that I was the only media member in the viewing room, as it is a truly unique and enlightening way to watch the election process. A thick pane of glass separates the area from the boardroom, providing a clear view of the Pinellas County Canvassing Board. Audio from the boardroom is also broadcast into the viewing room, allowing for a unique insight into what the election officials were thinking as the night’s events unfolded.

Election officials and the canvassing board discuss results as more precincts report.

While I was the only member of the media, I was not alone. An attorney from the Democratic party sat next to me, and Chase said he is a regular on election nights. We made small talk in between updates, and he was quick to point out that the night’s big winner, mayoral candidate and registered Democrat Ken Welch, held an insurmountable lead as soon as the polls closed.
The Republican party did not have an attorney present.

From the onset, there was an intensity in the air not felt during the primary. Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus was busy answering elections employees’ questions, and intently judging signatures and addresses on ballots. The operations room sits just to the right of the viewing area, and a procession of poll workers from across St. Petersburg were led through the viewing area carrying ballots. There was always at least one officer in the operations room, and sometimes there were up to three watching over the space – which also requires a key card to enter.

To the left of the media viewing area was a room for poll watchers to keep an eye on the process. An elections worker walked up to notify Chase there was an issue. As a curious reporter, I asked Chase about the incident when he returned, and he explained that a poll watcher was taking pictures – a prohibited act in that area.

Just before polls closed at 7 p.m., the activity hit a crescendo, and Marcus announced to County Commission Chair Dave Eggers and the rest of the canvassing board that the first unofficial results would be released at precisely 7:03 p.m. In addition to the number of poll workers, the results seemed to pour in as the polls began to close.
Chase explained the office adopted a new process, allowing elections staff more time to complete the functions necessary to release the unofficial results.
“Our goal is to get it right, but get it right fast,” he said. “Hopefully, this small change in the process allows us to do that.”

Results updated so frequently, and with such a large number of precincts reporting each time, it was hard keeping up to publish live updates.

As more precincts reported, the conversation in the board room focused on the District 8 city council race between Jeff Danner and Richie Floyd. Floyd led by less than one percent throughout the evening, and the canvassing board member excitedly commented on how the difference in the number of votes dwindled with each update. At one point, just 11 votes out of over 50,000 separated the two candidates.

Chase and his colleagues were pleased with how smoothly the election process unfolded, and perhaps more importantly, with the turnout for a municipal election.

“All in all, it’s been really good,” said Chase. “The voters have been very engaged across the board. We’ve had high mail ballot returns and high election day returns. It’s a municipal election, so you expect to see lower results than you would from a general election, but this one has performed quite well.”

When it was all said and done, 67,336 St. Petersburg residents cast their votes in the election of the first new mayor in eight years. That was a significant increase from the 55,541 ballots cast in the August primary and the 55,541 that reelected Rick Kriseman as mayor in 2017.

“We had a very successful election – the turnout in St. Petersburg was incredible,” Chase said. “We believe that everyone who wanted to cast a ballot had the opportunity, either casting a mail ballot or in person at one of their polling places. Through our perspective, it was a great election because people got to exercise their franchise.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    Ron Ogden

    November 5, 2021at8:39 am

    Welch received fewer votes than Driscoll.

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