By Chuck Ballaro
It's primary time. And for those who can't wait to cast their ballots in the numerous races in their district, they can do so over the next week ahead of the Aug. 14 primary date.
But just because you're unaffiliated, doesn't mean you're out of the loop. There are races for board of education and judicial races in which you can take part.
What started as a voluntary thing in 2002 was such a hit it became a state mandate two years later. Today, early voting has become about as popular as showing up at the polls on Election Day.
According to Sharon Harrington, Lee County supervisor of elections, mail-in ballots and early voting accounted for two-thirds of all ballots in 2008.
Early voting centers
* Lee County Elections Main Office
2480 Thompson St., 3rd Floor
Fort Myers, FL 33901
* Lee County Election
Center Branch Office
(Across from Bell Tower Shops)
13180 S. Cleveland Ave.
Fort Myers, FL 33907
Telephone (239) 533-6918
* Cape Coral Branch Office
1031 SE 9th Place No. 3
* Bonita Springs Branch Office
24951 Old U.S. 41, Suite 10
* East County Regional Library
881 Gunnery Road
Things to Remember When Heading to the Polls:
Voters MUST present a PHOTO/SIGNATURE ID at early voting sites or at the polls on election day.
Acceptable forms of ID are:
* Valid Florida Driver's License
* Florida ID card
* US Passport
n Debit/Credit card
* Military ID
* Student ID
To avoid delays while voting, be sure to have updated your voter registration information prior to voting early or at your precinct on election day.
"The trend is building as more learn about it," Harrington said. "We live in a 'me' society. Everyone wants things set on their schedule and their choice."
"It's money well spent. It adds to the availability for voters," said Cape Coral City Councilmember Kevin McGrail. "It's important to get as much input from voters as possible."
Early voting begins today through Aug. 11, with offices open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., when it will be open on Sunday for the first time.
One of the many advantages of early voting is that, unlike on Election Day, any voter can vote at any office, not just at the closest one or the one in your precinct.
"You just bring your photo ID and they'll tell you your precinct and an on-demand printer will print it," said Joann Beaumont, administrative assistant to Harrington.
Harrington said that idea started in 2004 in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley, which happened three weeks before the primaries and turned election centers in Charlotte County into rubble.
"It started a system where you could go wherever a tent was to vote," Harrington said. "Over the years we refined it to where there's a bar code on the certificate that you scan."
The Republican and Democratic primaries can only be voted on by those in their respective parties unless specifically open - there is no candidate of another party, or a write-in candidate, on the General Election ballot.
All but one of the partisan primaries is GOP. Harrington said it's because Lee County voters are predominantly Republican.
As of Thursday, the GOP had 166,917 registered voters to 111,015 for Democrats. The other 98,784 are unaffiliated, according to Lee Elections data.
The only Democratic primary is for U.S. Senate, and Harrington said most Democrats didn't know there was even a primary.
Historically, because of this GOP dominance, many of these primary wins result in eventual election in November, Harrington said, adding opposition frequently is a write-in candidate.
Many write-ins are members of the Republican Party, and for good reason, she said.
"It became so (Lee County) Republicans would only run because of support from the community, those elected were elected in the primary," Harrington said.
Democrats in Miami-Dade County were also in the same boat. Because of this, Harrington said, the legislature took action.
"They decided if the race would be decided in primary, with no opposition in November, the primary would be open," Harrington said.
The predominant party circumvented this by placing a write-in candidate on the November ballot, Harrington said, to close the primary, without necessarily being on the ballot.
Unaffiliated voters, however, can vote in the non-partisan elections for judicial seats and the school board.
In the school board elections, the top two vote-getters will face off in November, unless the top vote getter receives more than 50 percent of the vote, Harrington said.
Only four judicial seats are up for grabs, with none having more than two candidates. Most judicial candidates ran unopposed, according to Lee Elections.
McGrail said this primary season is vitally important, so voting is imperative.
"People who stay home because it's a primary might find their candidate gone," McGrail said. "Many offices will be decided after Aug. 14."
As for expected turnout, that's hard to predict. Harrington said between 30 and 35 percent of voters usually turn out. With this being a presidential election year, it could be higher.
"There's something on the ballot for everyone. They'll have a big say in the school board races. We could have 45 percent turnout because of the number of items," Harrington said.