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Early Voters in Fla. Find Long Lines, a Bit of Muddle

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By Steven A. Holmes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. -- After standing for more than an hour outside his polling place earlier this week, Dick Rosenow finally gave up when it started raining. He returned the next day, but again the line snaked around the branch library in this town south of Palm Beach. He waited an hour before he could cast his ballot.

"It's not the workers' fault," said Rosenow, a retired management consultant. "It's the technology. It's the equipment that's causing the trouble."

Early voting began this week in Florida and, as Rosenow discovered, with it came long waits, balky voting machines, complaints about too few polling places and some confusion about state election law. All of this raised fears that Nov. 4 could bring even bigger problems to a state whose history of voting difficulties includes the deadlocked 2000 election that ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Florida is one of more than two dozen states where voters are allowed to cast ballots in person before Nov. 4, as well as others where ballots can be mailed in. The ballots are then held until Election Day to be counted.

Around the country, there have been scattered reports of long lines of early voters, but not to the extent that appeared in Florida this week. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) and other state officials, however, say that early voting is going well and that any relatively minor difficulties do not hint at problems on Election Day.

"I'm not troubled by it. We anticipated long lines," said Kurt S. Browning, Florida's secretary of state. "This is an election that is generating a lot of interest, and people want the opportunity to vote early."

The possibility that as many as one-third of Florida's voters may cast ballots early or through the mail, the officials argue, will relieve pressure on polling places that day.

There is little doubt that interest is driving up the number of people voting. Florida has added 1 million registrations since January, and many county election officials report record turnout in early voting.

But some of the difficulties in early voting also stem from election law in Florida.

In 2005, the Republican-dominated state legislature, over the objection of the county election supervisors who run the balloting, passed laws limiting polling places to city halls, the main offices of county election boards and public libraries. County election officials wanted to expand that list to include community centers, health clinics, recreational centers and other public facilities.

Under state law, early voters can cast ballots in any precinct in their county. But that means polling places may need different ballots if they get voters from more than one city, school board district or congressional district. In Palm Beach County, for example, poll workers had to be ready to print out 185 types of ballots depending on voters' addresses. On top of that, the state legislature in 2005 scaled back weekday polling times for early voting from 12 hours to 8.

The result has been the long waits. On Tuesday, for example, one polling site in Miami-Dade County closed its doors at the state-mandated time of 3 p.m. Some of those who made it in before the doors were shut did not finish voting until 8 that night.


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