MANATEE -- The campaign season is hitting its finale as Election Day approaches Tuesday.
Eight days of early voting ended at 7 p.m. Saturday, although vote-by-mail ballots, or absentee ballots, continue to roll in by the thousands to the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections office.
Candidates are at a fever pitch of last-minute campaigning.
Fewer voters are expected at the polls on Election Day, due to the increasing popularity of early voting and vote-by-mail.
When early voting came to an end Saturday, those who had already voted early numbered just under 14,000, while the number of returned vote-by-mail ballots had reached about 44,000, according to Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Michael Bennett late Saturday.
"This is the first time I've ever done early voting," said Steve Pyle, 47, a Bradenton window installer as he walked toward the elections office on Friday.
"It's convenient for me because I work on Tuesday," he said.
Barbara Bohner, a semi-retired CPA from West Bradenton, said she had voted by mail long ago and had found it "absolutely" convenient.
"Most definitely," she said. "I prefer to mail it in because I can read and study it beforehand."
Across the county, registered Republicans numbered 89,984; Democrats, 67,649; and "other," 54,976, totaling 212,609 voters, according to the elections website.
While Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Democrat Charlie Crist and Libertarian Adrian Wyllie battle it out on the state level, a number of contentious races are going on at the congressional and local level, too.
Incumbent U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican, defended his voting record, as Democrat Henry Lawrence and write-in candidate Joe Newman took issue with it.
Among the issues in the race for the 16th District seat was Buchanan's distaste for the Affordable Care Act, which has provided health insurance to millions without it. Lawrence favored it, while Newman thought the U.S. should have just expanded Medicare, the government health care program for seniors, to everyone.
The race for the District 6 at-large seat on the Manatee County Commission, pitting Republican incumbent Carol Whitmore and her Democratic challenger, newcomer Terri Wonder, focused on environmental issues and voting habits.
Wonder criticized Whitmore's voting record on a proposed development at Long Bar Pointe, while Whitmore criticized Wonder's overall voting record, since she had skipped last year's election on a proposed health-care surtax.
Julie Aranibar and Mary Cantrell are the remaining candidates in the Manatee County School Board District 5 race after beating out Carlton "Les" Nichols and James Golden in the primary.
Aranibar, first elected in 2010 and currently serving as the school board chair, is seeking re-election. Cantrell, the longtime head of Manatee Technical Institute, is looking to be elected for the first time.
Aranibar is running on a platform to continue progress the district has made in the past 18 months since the administration changed hands. Cantrell wants to transfer the successes she had at MTI to the district as a whole.
In Bradenton's Ward 3 election, incumbent Patrick Roff faces a challenge from political newcomer Paul Thomas.
Both candidates have named infrastructure as a primary topic, with Roff promising to push for more funding by using new revenue from the city's agreement with Manatee County to pump reused water to Lakewood Ranch. Thomas said infrastructure needs to be addressed, but offered no solution.
In Bradenton Beach, Ward 4 residents have a decision to make: Incumbent Commissioner Jan Vosburgh is up against Tjet Martin, Mayor William Shearon's longtime girlfriend.
The race between the two in Ward 4 comes as the commission considers whether to remove Shearon from office.
Vice Mayor Jack Clarke wrote a complaint about Shearon, accusing the mayor of failures including city staffing issues, mismanagement of the replacement of city computer systems and lack of transparency.
Polls are open from 7 a.m.- 7 p.m. Tuesday. For information, call the elections office at 941-741-3823, visit votemanatee.com, or go in person to the elections office, 600 301 Blvd. W., Suite 108, Bradenton.
A secure drop box where voters can return absentee ballots is open 24 hours a day at the supervisor's office through 7 p.m. Tuesday.
-- Herald reporters Meghin Delaney, Mark Young, Amaris Castillo and Jessica De Leon contributed.
to this report.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.