Early-voting numbers are low, but ‘we need not be alarmed’

Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

Election supervisors in Orange and Osceola counties are lamenting low turnout through the first eight days of early voting.

“It’s been very slow,” said Osceola County Election Supervisor Mary Jane Arrington. “Very disappointing.”

About a fourth of the 80,000 vote-by-mail ballots she sent voters have been returned. They’re due by 7 p.m. Aug. 23.

Generally, the top of the ticket drives turnout, Arrington said, but this year’s gubernatorial race isn’t generating much heat for Republican voters as their presumptive nominee, incumbent Ron DeSantis, has been campaigning out of state to build steam for a probable presidential run in 2024.

“There’s not a high-profile contest,” said Bill Cowles, Orange County’s election supervisor, noting that party primaries for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat are formalities as the clash Nov. 8 pits U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat, and incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican.

Early voting, which began Aug. 8 in Orange and Osceola, also is underway in Lake, where polls opened Aug. 11, and in Seminole, where voters began casting ballots Saturday. Early voting ends Sunday in Orange and Osceola counties and Saturday in Lake and Seminole counties.

“Realize that for primary elections, typically there’s not that big of a voter turnout and we need not be alarmed,” Lake County Election Supervisor Alan Hays said. “Our responsibility is to make sure we set the table, so to speak, but we can’t make them come and eat.”

Meager voting totals prompted Save Orange County Inc., an advocacy group that has fought urban-style development east of the Econlockhatchee River and has endorsed its vice chair, Kelly Semrad, for Orange County mayor, to urge voters to cast their ballots.

“If Save Orange County comes out in full force & takes our sustainable growth demands to the polls — we will win the mayor’s election for the people and the environment,” the nonprofit group said in an email to its members. “Help us get one of our own that has been fighting beside us for years into the seat of Orange County Mayor! The community is tired of fighting the good fight.”

Semrad is challenging incumbent Mayor Jerry L. Demings in a four-way race that also includes tech entrepreneur Chris Messina and retired Army Col. Anthony Sabb. If none of the four wins more than half the ballots, the top two vote-getters advance to the Nov. 8 ballot.

As of mid-day Tuesday, about 66,000 or 7.75% of Orange County’s 856,000 registered voters had cast a ballot, including about 49,200 whose vote-by-mail ballot had arrived at election headquarters, according to a running tally posted on the supervisor’s site.

About 26% of Orange County’s registered voters cast a ballot in the 2018 primary, including 66,471 who voted by mail.

Orange County’s voter rolls have grown by about 85,000 voters since then.

Some voters underestimate the importance of primary elections in local races, Arrington said.

Orange County’s ballots, for instance, include nonpartisan races in which all voters, regardless of their party affiliation, will help choose the county mayor for the next four years; three county commissioners; public school board chair; and a slew of judgeships.

“People think judges don’t matter — until you’re in front of one,” Arrington quipped.

She said turnout tends to pick up in the final days of early voting so participation totals might jump later this week.

“Usually it’s busier towards the end,” Arrington said.

For example, in Seminole County, where voter participation has averaged about 25% over the past three primaries, the final two days of early voting in the 2018 primary brought about 6,300 to the polls, more than double the total of the first two days, data shows.