Early voting is getting underway across the region for the November 4th General Election. Voters in Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, and Escambia Counties can cast ballots beginning Monday and continuing through Saturday, November 1st.
For the General Election, each of the counties is exceeding the eight-day minimum by providing a total of 13 early voting days, with a combined 14 polling locations that will be open for 10 hours each day in Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties; nine hours daily in Escambia.
Paul Lux is Supervisor of Elections in Okaloosa County, where there are five early voting locations from Crestview to Destin, "Whether the place is closer to where you work or whether it’s closer to where you live. We’re trying to locate them geographically along routes that people are traveling. They may not have early voting on their mind but they see as they’re driving by, hey early voting is going on and it’s open right here, maybe they’ll pull in."
The early voting sites in Okaloosa include: the fairgrounds in Ft. Walton Beach, the Destin Community Center, Niceville City Hall, and two locations in Crestview, the Supervisor of Elections Office downtown and at the Robert Sikes Library.
As for Escambia County, there are seven early voting locations, including the elections office and main branch library in downtown Pensacola, as well as the addition of two new sites –in Molino and at the Extension Service office on Stefani Road.
Escambia Elections Supervisor David Stafford says he’s confident that voters who want to vote early will have plenty of opportunity to do so," The bottom line is we’re offering now more sites and a total number of hours greater than we have ever offered in the past. We have 117 hours available, previously was limited to 96 hours and again we have 7 sites as versus to 5 in the last presidential election. We’re certainly not going to see the 75-80 percent turnout, we’re very confident that we will accommodate them."
" We will have our main office in Milton which will be in the north end. Then also our south end location which is one block east of the zoo and the South Santa Rosa Service Center."
That’s Supervisor of Elections Tappie Villane, pointing to the only two early voting sites in Santa Rosa County. Villane says they hope to have more by the 2016 election. While the state has provided more flexibility in the selection process, she says there are certain criteria that must be met, "There are just things you have to look at, obviously a facility you can use for that specific amount of time, have to consider the security of the facility, so there’s a lot that goes into planning for early voting as for election day, but that’s on our radar and we’ll be looking into doing that (adding sites) in the future."
And, of course, more locations add to the cost of early voting for each county. But, Escambia’s David Stafford says early voting has become more and more popular since first introduced in Florida in the early 2000’s,"2006 is when it took off locally and across the state. And, voters have generally embraced it. They like the convenience, like the ability to go ahead and get their voting done in advance if you will of Election Day."
Stafford says early voting was aimed at reducing election-day crowds in Florida, where the population reached 19.5 million in 2013. However, there’s been NO evidence of a direct correlation between early voting and increased voter turnout. Okaloosa Elections Supervisor Paul Lux explains, "What we have seen is the more options we give people for voting all we’re doing is rearranging the numbers of who is going where to vote on any one particular day. We have not seen a marked increase in voting turnout since we started/expanded early voting. What we do see however is, and it’s really funny because some people absolutely bar none want to go vote on Election Day in their polling place."
For the August Primary, Okaloosa was among the counties with the highest voter participation, which averaged about 18 percent statewide. For the General Election, the historical average for a mid-term election is 45-50 percent. And, that is what’s expected despite Florida’s hotly-contested race for governor.
All of the elections officials across the region would like to see more people go to the polls, hammering the point that every vote really does matter. Lux says those who are disenchanted with the process need look no further than the 2000 Presidential Election, "The Bush V Gore ordeal that we endured in 2000 showed us anything, come on 525 votes difference in the state the size of Florida to decide who the president of the United States was going to be, you can’t tell me one vote doesn’t count, that was less than one voter per precinct across the state. To me it’s incomprehensible for people to say now say their votes don’t count when we have so much concrete proof that absolutely they do."
Early voting in Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Escambia continues through Saturday, Nov. 1st. For more information on location and hours, visit each Supervisor of Elections website: govote-okaloosa.com, votesantarosa.com, and Escambiavotes.com.