Newcomer's Guide To Voting In Florida's 2014 Elections

2014 is an election year in Florida, and all the buzz seems to be around the governor's race. But when it comes to voting, citizens -- especially those new to the state -- may need help navigating the process. How do you register? Who are the candidates, and where do you vote?

Rest easy, fellow Floridians. We've got you covered with this basic voting guide that will help take the stress out of finding the polls and making your vote count.

First step: Get Yourself Registered

To be eligible to vote in Florida, residents must be U.S. citizens who are at least 18 years of age. Voters must provide a current and valid Florida driver's license number or Florida ID number, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

The next step is filling out a Voter Registration Application, which is available online. Print it out, sign it and mail it to your county Supervisor of Elections using a first class stamp.

"It's pretty straightforward,'' says Brittany Lesser, a Division of Elections spokesperson. "You just have to be registered 29 days before you can vote.''

This means that if you plan on voting in the primary election coming up on August 26, you need to make sure you're registered to vote by July 28. The deadline for voting in the November general election is October 6.

Understanding The Elections

A primary election is held to select the candidates that will run in the general election.

"A lot of people kind of overlook the primary, but you're really selecting the people that move forward at that point,'' says Craig Latimer, Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections. "If people sit out the primaries, they're going to miss out on electing some of their representation.''
Florida has closed primaries, meaning that voters can only vote for candidates who are within their political party. In other words, Democrats cannot vote in a Republican primary and vice versa. However, all registered voters can participate in primaries for nonpartisan races (think judicial and school board offices). Another exception to the rule is when all the candidates in a specific race are affiliated with the same party, and the winner will not encounter any opposition in the general election.

"The school board race could be decided in August at the primary, as well as some of the judges,'' says Latimer.

The governor, lieutenant governor, state legislators, county commissioners, congressional representatives and more will all be decided this year. (A full listing of candidates is provided by the state Division of Elections.)

Elections also serve as an opportunity to vote on important issues. In Pinellas County voters will decide whether to raise the county's sales tax by a penny per dollar spent in order to finance a major transportation overhaul that includes a light rail line between Clearwater and St. Petersburg. All Florida residents can vote on amendments to the state constitution regarding water and land conservation, medical marijuana use and more.
How To Vote

When it's time to cast their votes, Floridians can go the traditional route and vote in person at a local precinct on the actual election day. (Specific polling places can be found on your county's Supervisor of Elections website.) Just be sure to bring a valid and current photo ID.

Alternatively, voters have other options.

"We really would like to encourage people to vote by mail and to vote early,'' says Latimer.

When voting by mail, your ballot is sent directly to your home. After taking the time to research candidates and specific issues, you can fill it out, sign the envelope and drop it in the mailbox without having to pay for postage. For those wary of the mail, ballots can also be returned to specified drop-off sites.

Another option is early voting. Dates vary from county to county. Most counties -- including Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas -- offer early voting around the same time (mid-August for the primary election and late-October for the general election).

Why vote?

When it comes to spreading the word about the importance of voting, community outreach efforts are vital. Nonpartisan organizations like the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County encourage voter turnout by registering and educating all types of new voters, not just women.

"They need to know that if they don't vote, they're letting the person who does vote choose for them,'' says Shirley Arcuri, the group's president.

Arcuri and her team will be on the ground at USF on September 23 for National Voter Registration Day. Their main objective will be to motivate college students to get out and vote. The group also partners with the ACLU and the NAACP to do voter registration drives for minority voters.

Many counties even pre-register high school students to vote. Outreach efforts like these made it easy for now 23-year-old Jessica Primiani to vote in the 2012 election.

"During the 2008 presidential election, volunteers came to Tarpon Springs High School to encourage the young voters to sign up,'' says Primiani. "I was still 17 at the time, but I filled something out anyway and on my 18th birthday, I was mailed my voter registration card.''

Primiani, who's registered in Pinellas County, plans to make her voice heard in the upcoming elections.

Marianne Hayes is a writer, wife, mother and bookworm in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. You can read about her adventures in motherhood on her blog, With Kids in Hand. Twitter: @HayesMarianne. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Marianne Hayes.

Marianne Hayes is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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