POINCIANA – In Polk County, Lori Edwards said, no matter how many people feel passionately about the presidential race and the leading candidates, nearly a quarter of all voters won’t bother going to the polls next month.
“I would say at least 22 percent of the voters will not vote,” said Edwards, Polk County’s election supervisor.
In Osceola County, Mary Jane Arrington said, that percentage will probably be even higher.
“Between 25 and 30 percent of voters won’t attend,” said Arrington, Osceola County’s election supervisor.
Both election supervisors are hoping to improve those numbers this year, in a variety of ways, including providing information about polling locations and what’s on the ballot through their respective Web sites, opening new convenient polling locations, and making voting locations available for early voting starting next month.
But they also know that they have a difficult job ahead of them, with a host of challenges.
“Mary Jane and I are working hard to get the word out, but we need your help,” Edwards said. “Update your (voter registration) records in advance. You don’t want to make your address change on election day. Double-check your precinct. I don’t want you showing up at the wrong place. It’s very important that you know where you need to vote.”
On Monday, Edwards and Arrington were the guest speakers at the monthly meeting of the civic group Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, held at the Poinciana Library. They had been invited to speak by the civic group’s president, Keith Laytham, who noted that Florida is in the national spotlight this year, as one of the few remaining toss up states in the presidential race between President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Florida has been in that spotlight before, Laytham noted, and not always in a flattering way – most embarrassingly in 2000, he said, when the Sunshine State was the scene of a major recount dispute that held up the outcome of the presidential race for more than a month after balloting. The extended process of counting and recounting Florida’s presidential ballots dragged out for weeks, until Texas Gov. George W. Bush was declared the winner in Florida by 537 votes out of almost six million cast.
It made the entire state look like a model of balloting incompetence, Laytham said.
“We got the reputation as ‘Flori-Duh,’ ” he said. “It was an embarrassment, to say the least. We’ve made a lot of progress since then.”
In an encouraging sign this year, the two election supervisors said, Central Florida voters appear ready to take advantage of early voting opportunities, and in very strong numbers.
“More than 50 percent of the voters in Osceola County will vote prior to election day,” Arrington said. “In Poinciana, 60 percent of our voters voted early in 2008.”
Poinciana is divided between both counties. There are roughly about 52,000 Poinciana residents on the Osceola side, and 32,000 on the Polk County side.
Edwards said she just opened a new early voting location at Haines City City Hall, and a second one at Ridgeview Plaza on U.S. 27 in Davenport.
“Early voting is becoming more and more popular,” Edwards said.
Early voting starts on Oct. 27, and Polk County’s polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., she added. The last day to register to vote is Oct. 9.
“There will be no excuses after that,” Edwards said.
Arrington said in Osceola County, early voting hours will also be 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
“We encourage you to vote early,” she said. “If there are lines – and we expect there will be – we will have an IPad operator who will be going through the line asking if they need an address change. People like early voting and we understand that.”
One issue that has both election supervisors a bit nervous is the 11 constitutional amendments that are on the Nov. 6 ballot. Voters will be asked to decide a host of issues, from the election of a student body president to the state university system, to property tax exemptions for seniors and veterans, to allowing the state to provide financial aid to private religious schools.
Both Arrington and Edwards think most voters will not have read up on these measures prior to going to the polls, and are likely to find it frustrating reading all of them – and, quite possibly, figuring out what some of them mean.
“People are going to take a long time with these amendments,” Edwards said.
“They are long, they are wordy, and people are not going to be prepared,” Arrington said. ”Voters get frustrated when they try to figure them out in the polling booth. We’re going to encourage our voters to read those constitutional amendments before election day. We ask you to prepare ahead of time.”
More information on early voting and the ballot referendums can be found, for Polk County voters, at Edwards’ Web site at www.polkelections.com and in Osceola County, at Arrington’s site at voteosceola.com.
“We have a wealth of information on there,” Arrington said. “We encourage you to go there.”
Fernando Valderve, a member of PRSC, said he hopes residents of both counties get that message and perform their civic duty by practicing their right to vote.
”In the last primary, only 16 percent turned out to vote,” Valverde said of the state’s Aug. 14 primary. “That means 84 percent did not vote.”
Laytham said those who don’t go to the polls shouldn’t bother complaining afterwards if they don’t like the choices made by others on election day.
“If you don’t vote,” he said, “you don’t have a right to complain.”
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