Exclusive poll: Half say early voting days about right

By Caitlin Constantine, Senior web content editor
Last Updated: Monday, December 31, 2012

The 2012 campaign season was a contentious one. In fact, it was so contentious that even the elections themselves became a source of controversy.

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature pushed through a measure that cut early voting from 14 days to 8 days. The measure also cut voting on the final Sunday before Election Day.

The move was met with accusations that the Republican-led Legislature was attempting to influence the outcome of the vote, with critics of the changes saying early voting is popular among the black community, which tends to support the Democratic party. Rep. Corrine Brown called the shortened early voter period a "deliberate attempt to suppress the African-American vote.”

Poll: Half of respondents say early voting days just right

But despite the controversy over the early voting hours, an exclusive Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/AM 820 poll found just under half of respondents thought the number of early voting days were just about right.

Just over a third of those who responded – 35 percent – said they thought there should be more early voting days. Only 8 percent said they thought there should be fewer early voting days.

Most of those polled said they were able to vote, with 83 percent casting a ballot in November. Ninety percent of respondents age 55 and older said they voted, while 79 percent of adults 54 and younger cast a ballot. Turnout was higher among Pinellas residents – 87 percent – than Hillsborough residents.

Those who voted were asked about the method they used to cast their ballot. Slightly more than a third of respondents – 37 percent – said they went to the polls on Election Day. Thirty-six percent of respondents used a mail ballot to vote. Less than a third of the voters took advantage of early voting.

Hillsborough residents were more likely to take advantage of early voting, while only 17 percent of Pinellas residents voted early in person. However about half of Pinellas residents cast their ballot by mail.

Despite the demographic differences, both methods of voting broke records. Hillsborough and Pasco counties reported records for the eight days of early voting, as well as single-day voter turnout. In Pinellas County, a record 300,000 voters requested mail ballots.

In fact, the overall turnout among Florida’s voters broke records, with nearly 8.5 million votes cast – more than had ever been cast before.

That increased turnout was in evidence on those early voting days, as voters throughout the state found themselves waiting in line for hours to cast their ballots. In some places in South Florida, voters waited in line for up to six hours on the Saturday before Election Day.

Lawsuits filed over Florida's voting changes

The Florida Democratic Party filed suit in hopes of forcing the state government to extend voting hours. The state party’s chairman Rod Smith said the shortened period wasn’t long enough.

"Florida's Republican state Legislature has already reduced the number of days to early vote by six days," he said. "Because of Gov. Scott’s refusal to follow precedent and extend early voting hours in the face of unprecedented voter turnout in South Florida, we are requesting in federal court that more Floridians have a meaningful chance to early vote."

Gov. Scott had defended the changes in the days leading up to Election Day, even rejecting a call to extend early voting by a day. However, after reports of hours-long lines to cast ballots made national headlines, Scott said he had instructed Secretary of State Ken Detzner to review the election and to look for ways to improve the process.

“We need to make improvements for Florida voters and it is important to look at processes on the state and the county level. We will carefully review suggestions for bettering the voting process in our state,” he said in a statement.

Federal investigation into Florida's voting laws

The Justice Department began an investigation into problems with voting procedures around the nation, including those faced by voters in Florida. The department is looking into a complaint that alleges the reduced number of early voting days were part of an effort to suppress the vote among minorities.

"The focus of the investigation appears to be to determine whether Florida's voting system is so corrupt that last resort action has to be made to stop systemic, persistent corruption that serves to suppress the votes of Blacks and Hispanics," said Florida Civil Rights Association spokesperson Kyan Ware.

Earlier this month, Sen. Bill Nelson testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in which he said the general counsel of the Florida Republican Party was a "key individual" behind the changes to voting laws.

That same day, Gov. Scott appeared on CNN and said he supports moves to ease potential problems at the polls, including the expansion of early voting.

Even though the results of the 2012 election are in the books, one thing is for certain: The debate is sure to continue over Florida’s election laws.

COMPLETE POLL RESULTS

1. Did you happen to get a chance to vote in the November election?

  County Age Gender
  Hillsborough Pinellas 18-54 55+ Male Female Total
Yes 80% 87% 79% 90% 82% 84% 83%
No 19% 13% 21% 8% 18% 15% 16%
Not sure 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Refused 1% 0% 0% 2% 0% 1% 1%

2. If you voted in the November election, did you vote at the polls on Election Day, vote by absentee ballot or vote in person at an early voting place?

  County
Age Gender
  Hillsborough Pinellas 18-54 55+ Male Female Total
At the polls on Election Day 40% 34% 45% 26% 41% 35% 37%
By an absentee or mail ballot
24% 49% 26% 51% 33% 38% 36%
In person at an early voting place 36% 17% 29% 24% 27% 27% 27%
Not sure 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Refused 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%

3. This year, the state Legislature reduced the number of days available for early voting, but allowed the same number of total voting hours as in years past. Do you think the number of early voting days should be increased, decreased, or are the number of voting days about right?

  County Age Gender
  Hillsborough Pinellas 18-54 55+ Male Female Total
Number of voting days should be increased 36% 35% 30% 45% 32% 38% 35%
Number of voting days should be decreased 7% 8% 9% 5% 11% 4% 8%
Number of voting days is about right 51% 47% 55% 39% 49% 49% 49%
Not sure/No opinion 6% 10% 6% 11% 7% 8% 8%

_______________________________________________

The telephone survey of (521) Hillsborough and Pinellas County residents was conducted December 5 through 13 for the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News.

The surveys were administered by Braun Research, a national polling firm based in Princeton, N.J.

The margin of error was plus or minus (4.3) percentage points overall.