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And they’re off: Early voting begins, with South Tampa leading charge

It’s widely thought that higher turnout favors Jane Castor in the mayoral race.

Now that early voting is underway in Tampa and vote-by-mail ballots still coming in at a steady trickle, voter turnout appears poised to well-exceed the March 5 municipal election.

As of Sunday evening, about 1,300 people cast ballots at one of seven early voting locations.

Last month, total early voting turnout was about 7,600, averaging about 1,000 votes per day. On the first day of early voting in the March election, just 700 voters cast ballots, though that was on a Monday not a Sunday, which tends to have higher participation.

As of the first day of early voting last month, overall turnout in the election was at just 6 percent. Now, it’s at more than 11 percent.

Further, more voters have returned a mail ballot at this point in the race than did during the entire municipal election. Fewer than 23,000 voters cast an absentee ballot in March compared with more than 24,000 in this race. At the same point in the March election, just 14,000 registered voters returned a mail ballot.

It’s impossible to say with certainty who those votes favor, but it’s widely thought that higher turnout favors Jane Castor in the mayoral race. Voters who supported one of the two candidates in the runoff are more likely to vote again in the runoff than those who had supported a losing candidate.

Castor finished the municipal race with 48 percent of the vote compared to her opponent, David Straz, who collected just 15 percent.

If where people are voting is any indication, Straz might not be picking up the votes he needs to bridge that seemingly insurmountable gap.

The Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library in South Tampa was the busiest on the first day of early voting. Nearly 700 voters cast a ballot there Sunday. That precinct and those surrounding it went solidly for Castor last month and in many of those precincts, Straz finished behind Harry Cohen. Cohen endorsed Castor and is asking his supporters to now shift their support to Castor.

The West Tampa Branch Library and the Cyrus Green Center in West and East Tampa saw a combined 260 votes. Straz has been campaigning the hardest in those areas.

The New Tampa and north Tampa early voting sites had a combined 243 ballots cast. Most voters in those areas are represented by Tampa City Council member Luis Viera who has endorsed Castor. Viera soundly won re-election outright during the March election, collecting 76 percent of the vote over his challenger.

Straz has admitted he’s the underdog in this race. In a news conference last month though, he told reporters he was confident he could bridge the gap. Since then, his campaign has launched an all-out assault on Castor’s record as the city’s former Chief of Police.

Recent allegations of crime data manipulation were debunked by both a state audit report and a criminology expert, but voters might not see past the hundreds of thousands of dollars in ads Straz is blasting over airwaves throughout the city painting Castor as a corrupt politician.

Castor’s campaign has so far weathered to criticism and has mostly kept to campaigning on key issues facing the city like transportation, affordable housing, jobs and climate resiliency. She launched just one ad responding to the criticism calling the allegations lies.

Straz’s attacks are the wild card in this race, but if the numbers, historic voting trends and polls offer any indication, it won’t be enough to topple Castor’s massive lead heading into the April 23 runoff.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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