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St. Pete considers bringing back early voting

Mark Parker

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Assistant city attorney Brandon Pettigrew gives a history of early voting in St. Pete to city council. Screengrab.

Last month, City Councilmember Darden Rice stood on the steps of City Hall, calling for St. Petersburg to reinstate an early voting option.

She was flanked by fellow councilmember and mayoral candidate Robert Blackmon, along with city council candidates Mhariel Summers and Richie Floyd.

At Thursday’s city council meeting, Rice formally requested a presentation to the council on the fiscal, operational and logistical data involved in implementing early voting for every municipal election beginning in January 2022.

Assistant city attorney Bruce Pettigrew began the presentation by explaining there was once a state law requiring an early voting option, but that law changed on Jan. 1, 2006. Pettigrew said one of the concerns with the previous law was that someone could vote early and then die before the election. After the legislative change, the city continued to hold early voting in 2007, even though it was not required. Pettigrew said about 3% of votes in that municipal election were cast early.

Since that 2007 election, Pettigrew said early voting has only been available one time – in the 2017 municipal general election.

“Generally speaking, since 2007, early voting for the election of municipal officers has been the exception rather than the rule,” said Pettigrew.

Pettigrew told city council the decision to open early voting was theirs to make. “You are not required to do so, but you are allowed to do so,” he added.

Pettigrew said the council can put an early voting mandate into the city code, or as a more flexible option, add a resolution in advance of each individual election.

Jacqueline Azis, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union and board member for the League of Women Voters, explained the benefits of early voting to the council. She said that early voting is essential for people like herself, who are frequent travelers, to fulfill their civic duty. She added that it also creates more voting access for anyone who may have a difficult time reaching their polling location during the workweek.

“At a time when politicians around the country are creating barriers to voting, the St. Pete City Council has an opportunity to expand access to voting,” said Azis.

Azis said the data supports early voting, and nearly a third of Floridians cast their ballots before the normal election date – higher than the national average of 22%. Most of all, she said, early voting benefits traditionally underrepresented communities.

“Black and Latino voters use early voting more often than white voters,” stated Azis.

She said 45% of Black voters cast their ballots early, compared to 31% of white voters. She also said that 25% of Florida voters who did not vote in the 2018 election cited scheduling conflicts as the main reason they did not make it to their polling locations.

“With SB90, the Florida legislature made it harder to vote by mail,” said Azis. “The city can address this by making it easier to vote early.”

City council Chair Ed Montanari said there are some things he would like to discuss further and noted a Public Service and Infrastructure (PSI) Committee meeting scheduled for Oct. 14. Rice said they could draft a resolution for early voting and bring it to PSI, to which Montanari agreed.

City council voted unanimously to approve Rice’s resolution, with Amy Foster and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman absent.

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    JOHN DONOVAN

    October 4, 2021at3:59 pm

    If you get a mail in ballot 30+ days or more before the city election (I did) isn’t that “early voting”. Excuses for not voting are the “dog ate my homework” of adult life. Feel free to waste your time on that conversation. Things to avoid that are synonymous with voter fraud worldwide are ballot harvesting, unsolicited ballots mailed to every flimsy registration file in a jurisdictions poorly maintained records, lack of current identification or signature verification, and unsecured facilities to deposit ballots, among other things.

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