MIAMI, Oct. 31 -- Four years of fermenting political acrimony is funneling into the final hours of a campaign for Florida's crucial electoral votes awash in brawls over lost absentee ballots and accusations about plots to disenfranchise black voters.
The emotional residue of Florida's pivotal role in the 2000 presidential election morass shaped the race here from the beginning and shows no signs of waning -- a big billboard in the vital swing city of Tampa declared, "Last election, the Supreme Court decided. This time, you decide." Not far away, Kelly Given, a supporter of President Bush, lined up at an early-voting precinct and said, "Last election opened a Pandora's box we'll never be able to close."
Yet, for all the obvious comparisons to the days of recounts and dimpled chads, the Florida of 2004 is a very different place from the Florida of 2000, even as polls show the presidential race as close as it was four years ago. The punch cards and the butterfly ballots are gone, replaced in 15 counties by touch-screen voting machines, whose reliability has been questioned by voter advocates. There are 1.5 million new voters, huge crowds outside the state's first presidential election early-voting locations and far higher percentages of Hispanics who are not Cuban Americans.
"Florida is now the most complex state in America," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the Washington-based New Democrat Network, which is running ads targeting Hispanic voters in Florida. "It is the hardest state to poll."
Chaotic handling of absentee ballots has turned Broward County -- a Democratic stronghold north of Miami that supporters of Sen. John F. Kerry believe could tip the election in their favor -- into a pre-election flash point. Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes -- who took over the job after Gov. Jeb Bush (R) removed the previous supervisor for botching an election -- blamed the post office for losing 58,000 absentee ballots. Later, she lowered the figure to 6,000.
Whatever the figure, U.S. Postal Service officials say they have done nothing wrong and are scrambling to get replacement ballots to voters. More than 2,400 replacement absentee ballots from Broward County and an additional 5,600 from the Democratic bastion of Palm Beach County -- many with out-of-state addresses -- were dropped off late Saturday, long after mail carriers were gone, a Postal Service spokesman said.
"There's no way in hell those people are going to get their ballots in a timely fashion," spokesman Gerry McKiernan said. "They should get their act together over there."
The absentee-ballot follies left Christina Bray, who has a home in Deerfield Beach, Fla., in tears after days of trying to get a ballot sent to her other home in Washington. "I feel like I live in a Third World country," said Bray, 57, a retired World Bank employee.
The Democrats' worries about absentee ballots in Broward and Palm Beach counties are countered by some GOP fretting in Miami, where the president's campaign wants a boost from Cuban American voters. Only half of the county's absentee ballots had been returned by Sunday afternoon, which Republicans said was far below the usual return rate.
Luz Otero, who works odd jobs after being laid off by the state agriculture office, makes $11.03 an hour to open absentee ballots arrayed on tables inside steel cages at Miami's election warehouse. "Some only vote for president," she said, adjusting her blue surgical gloves.
Upstairs, lawyers for both parties are haggling over disqualifying absentee ballots, foreshadowing what will be an aggressive effort to question votes. Eric Buermann, who was chief counsel to the Bush campaign in Florida in 2000, said some concessions were being made for elderly voters with wobbly signatures. "We're compassionate challengers," he quipped.
Republicans plan to have 5,000 poll workers in the state on Election Day, and Democrats expect to have 6,000. Democrats have accused Republicans of targeting precincts in predominantly African American neighborhoods to slow down lines and discourage black voters.
Poll-watcher signup lists in several counties show the GOP plans to monitor all or most predominantly African American precincts but far fewer predominantly white precincts, said Rep. Kendrick Meek, Kerry's Florida campaign chairman. "It's beyond coincidence," he said.
Democrats also have accused the governor of bias for using an error-plagued list of ineligible felons that disproportionately removed blacks from voter rolls. The list was discontinued, but Republicans have recently renewed efforts to question the eligibility of thousands of former felons.