Editorial: Those who fail to cast ballots in Hillsborough are running out of excuses

Vote-by-mail ballots are delivered at the Supervisor of Elections office on Falkenburg Road. Voters who request them can either mail back the ballots after filling them out or drop them off at one of 20 early voting sites. [JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times]
Vote-by-mail ballots are delivered at the Supervisor of Elections office on Falkenburg Road. Voters who request them can either mail back the ballots after filling them out or drop them off at one of 20 early voting sites. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published October 19 2018

You wouldn't skip a trip to the gas pump, would you?

Then don't miss the chance to cast your general election ballot, either, when Hillsborough County opens its many early voting sites Monday morning for a two-week engagement.

If you do your homework and show up at the right hour, it will take about the same time as filling up your tank. And make no mistake, your vote is the fuel that keeps democracy running.

That doesn't mean it's easy. With federal, state and local offices, plus amendments to the state Constitution as well as sales tax hikes for schools and transportation, there are a lot of ovals to fill in on the general election ballot this year.

Each one represents a vital decision — to name just a few, who will control Congress and set the course for the future of Florida and Hillsborough County, whether criminal offenders who have paid their debt can rejoin society as voters, the health and safety of local students and the way we get around in Hillsborough.

Maybe you know and care about some of the questions, but not all of them. There are ways to bone up, by hitting the internet, for example, to review the opinions of interest groups you trust and to review both the Voter Guide and editorial recommendations from the Tampa Bay Times.

Though onerous identification requirements threaten to suppress voting by citizens who are older and poorer, Florida has generally made the process of registering to vote easy. In Hillsborough County, some 857,700 people have registered — 335,200 Democrats and 270,400 Republicans. And if you're one of the many among them who will fail to follow through by actually casting a ballot, you're running out of excuses.

To carry through the metaphor, registering but not voting is like getting a car and leaving it parked.

The number of early voting sites has grown to 20 in Hillsborough County this year, stretching from the Keystone Recreation Center to SouthShore Regional Library in Ruskin and including a new location at the Yuengling Center — formerly the Sun Dome — at the University of South Florida.

What's more, Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer has opted to keep them open for as many days as state law allows, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Monday, Oct. 22, through Sunday, Nov. 4.

Not every superv isor among Florida's 67 counties takes this approach. But Latimer reasons that he needs to so he can accommodate all those people casting ballots in the state's fourth most-populous county — and because, he said, "The voters have spoken."

Among the three options voters have for casting their ballots, early voting has emerged as the most popular, outpacing vote by mail and what Latimer likes to refer to as "the last day to vote" — Election Day.

During the 2012 general election, 31 percent of county ballots were cast by mail and 31 percent were cast at early voting sites. In the 2016 general election, mail voting remained at the same level but early voting shot up to 40 percent.

It's no wonder.

Any county voter can cast a ballot at any of the 20 early voting sites during the two weeks leading up to the election, so they can pull in while they're on their way home from work, out shopping — or maybe buying gas.

On Election Day, they're limited to just one polling place — the one for their voting precinct.

Vote-by-mail already has started and 63,700 people had cast a ballot this way as of Friday morning — 26,700 Democrats, 26,000 Republicans and 11,000 with no party affiliation.

But early voting offers the best of both worlds — the communal experience of standing at a voting booth to do your democratic duty in the presence of smiling, earnest poll workers who will offer you an "I Voted" sticker once you're done, and the convenience of avoiding Election Day lines.

Each early voting site even offers a slotted bin where you can drop off your mail-in ballot if you don't want to trust it to the postal service.

Latimer expects more sites will be added as the county's population grows and as the number of voters at any one site approaches 25,000, as it has at places like the Bloomingdale and Jimmie B. Keel regional libraries.

To find the locations of the early voting sites opening Monday, visit votehillsborough.org and click the "Early Voting" tab at the top.