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Majority of island votes cast by absentee ballot

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of August 23, 2012)

The majority of votes in the Aug. 14 election from the barrier island were absentee ballots, the first time that’s happened here. And, it indicates some interesting things about barrier island residents having to do with homestead exemptions and reduced taxes.

But it’s not without a possible downside because, more than any other form of voting,  absentee ballots allow the most opportunity for voter fraud.

For Indian River County elections supervisor Leslie Swan, the biggest surprise about the Aug. 14 primary was not who won, but how people voted: “Never before have more people here voted prior to the election than on election day,” said Swan.

No surprise given the huge number of hurricane-shuttered windows out there right now. Still, it’s interesting to look at why so many people, who are obviously not here for half of the year or more, claim the barrier island as their primary residence and vote by mail-in ballots.

Overall, in Indian River County, 15,819 votes were cast before election day – through absentee ballots and early voting – and 12,244 votes were cast at the polls on election day.

But on the barrier island, the number was even more dramatic.  A total of 2,794 votes were cast before election day, and 1,952 of them were by absentee ballot – which by itself exceeded the 1,773 votes cast on election day.

Why would this be? Why wouldn’t people who spent most of their lives in, say, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut or Pennsylvania and who also spend most of the year there, want to vote there too? Is there some financial advantage to being registered to vote here?

“Could be,” said Swan who suggested a call to the property tax appraiser’s office.

Property tax exemption supervisor Janine Hicks didn’t beat around the bush: “They (the people who live here part of the year and vote absentee) tell us that Florida has the best tax exemption system in the country.”

That’s because Florida lets people with homes here claim residency even if they’re only here for one day a year. Most states require people to live there more than half a year to claim residency.

But why claim residency in Florida if you’re somewhere else more often?

Two reasons, said Hicks: A cap on the appraised value of your house, which cuts down on taxes, and a $50,000 tax exemption on that appraised value.

What the cap means is that people who bought their homes – or vacation homes – years or decades ago are paying very low property taxes because the appraised value of their investment has appreciated a maximum of three percent a year.

The second big break is that $50,000 of that capped, appraised value is not taxed at all if the home cost $75,000 or more, which applies to most homes in the 32963 ZIP Code.

If you don’t have to live here to get the tax exemption, what, then, is required?

“Proof of residency,” said Hicks. “A voter’s registration for starters.”


And if you’re registered to vote here, why not go ahead and vote by absentee ballot?

“Exactly,” said Hicks.

The downside of absentee ballots is that they’re harder to track to the voter. In fact, last week, while the local election staff here was feeding absentee ballots into the machine to be counted, an absentee voting scandal was raging in Miami. 

In Florida for the Aug. 14 primary, over a million votes were cast before the election – 708,000 of them absentee ballots.