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St. Pete continues to explore avenues for early voting

Mark Parker

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Assistant City Attorney Brett Pettigrew discusses avenues for St. Petersburg to implement early voting with city council Thursday. Screengrab.

The St. Peterburg City Council is moving forward with discussions to either create a mechanism for early voting in municipal elections or move to in-conjunction voting with county and state elections, which already provide an early voting option.

At Thursday’s meeting, city council held a first reading of an ordinance that addresses a letter from the Supervisor of Elections Office (SOE) and acknowledges that state law authorizes the SOE to decline the city’s request to provide optional early voting for municipal elections. The ordinance also sought to improve overall clarity surrounding the process.

Following an Oct. 7 council meeting in which the city council first broached the subject of early voting, a representative from the Supervisor of Elections (SOE) office sent a letter to all municipal clerks in Pinellas County, including the St. Petersburg City Clerk. The letter discussed the elections office’s service limits and described the potential benefits of holding municipal elections in conjunction with national, state and county elections.

“Municipalities wishing to increase voter turnout by maximizing access to mail ballot drop boxes and early voting would need to consider the in-conjunction option,” wrote election contractor Marc Gillette in the letter.

At Thursday’s council meeting, Assistant City Attorney Brett Pettigrew explained the state only requires early voting for municipal elections when held in conjunction with county and state elections. Those elections are held on even-number years, while St. Petersburg holds its elections on odd-number years – per the city charter. The state allows for an early voting option if a municipality meets specific criteria, but the SOE has the authority to deny any requests.

The new ordinance establishes a clear process to request that SOE Julie Marcus create a municipal early voting option.

Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders noted that funding and staffing impede the city’s ability to institute early voting. She added that even if St. Pete were to address those issues, Marcus could still deny the request. Based on the estimates he received from the SOE, City Clerk Chan Srinivasa said the cost for three early voting polling locations would be $312,000 per election. Srinivasa said it would cost the city roughly $1.2 million for a full election cycle.

“Theoretically, the city could conduct it (early voting) itself, but that would require us creating essentially a parallel election apparatus,” replied Pettigrew. “Buying our own voting machines, it would just be practically impossible.

“Realistically, if the supervisor doesn’t conduct the early voting, it’s not going to be conducted.”

The SOE letter relayed the advantages to the city changing its election cycle to match county and state voting periods. The letter also stated that an unnamed local municipality switched from conducting stand-alone elections to in-conjunction elections and experienced positive results.

“In the first election conducted after the change, voter turnout increased by 279% (March 2013 to November 2014.) The same municipality also reduced overall election costs from $17,046 to $2,838, respectively,” stated Gillette in the letter. “That is an 84% cost savings or a savings of $1.17 per voter, which included early voting and additional mail ballot drop boxes because the election was held in conjunction with a countywide election.”

Councilmember Gina Driscoll expressed concern that the city could amend its charter to hold elections on even-number years to align with the county and state and still experience discrepancies with municipal election dates. Pettigrew explained that most dates would align but said he would have to look further into the matter.

Councilmember Darden Rice broached the subject of early voting in September and requested a presentation to city council on the fiscal, operational and logistical data involved in implementing early voting for municipal elections at an Oct. 7 council meeting.

Following that presentation, Council Chair Ed Montanari said he would like to discuss the matter further. Rice said she would draft a resolution and bring it to a Public Service and Infrastructure (PSI) Committee meeting scheduled for Oct. 14. The SOE letter strongly encouraging the city to hold in-conjunction voting was dated Oct. 14.

Thursday’s revised ordinance reflecting SOE Julie Marcus’ authority on the matter and clarifying details on the proposed changes was passed unanimously, with Councilmember Rice absent. The ordinance now moves to a public hearing, scheduled for Dec. 9.

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