Bongo drums, rapping preachers and a smattering of all-too-familiar technical difficulties greeted Florida voters Monday as the state's first attempt at early voting in a presidential election opened the 16-day voting season in this critical battleground state.
Thousands of people, many motivated by anger over the botched 2000 presidential election, lined up to cast ballots in Miami, Palm Beach County and other parts of the state roiled by the chaos of the last presidential race. Voters wedged into Miami's cavernous downtown government center and took numbers similar to those used at grocery store deli counters. City officials tried to offer a modicum of privacy by shooing away photographers who jumped rope lines and pushed their lenses within inches of the first voters to cast ballots.
"The circus is already getting started," said Bruce Detorres, 46, a legal aide to the poor, whose slip of paper identified him as Miami-Dade County voter number 18.
The state was thick with poll watchers attuned to every step of the process and they were spotting flaws throughout the day. Laptops used to verify registrations malfunctioned in Broward County, and computers froze in Orange County, briefly delaying voter verification.
"All I know is that we're not going to let anything slip by us," said state Rep. Shelley Vana (D), who complained after noticing missing pages on an absentee ballot she requested at a Palm Beach County polling place.
Florida's early-voting process, like almost everything about the state's election machinery, has been assailed by complaints this fall. It took an NAACP lawsuit to get additional early-voting sites in Volusia County, where voter advocates complained that the county's single location was too far from high concentrations of African American voters in Daytona Beach.
Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood announced Monday that two to four additional early-voting sites will be added in Jacksonville, where Duval County Elections Supervisor John Stafford resigned, citing health problems. Demonstrators had gathered outside the elections supervisor's office to protest a previous decision to limit sprawling Duval County, with its large numbers of African American voters, to a single early-voting location. In Tallahassee, the state Supreme Court ruled against labor unions that wanted to allow voters, including those displaced by hurricanes, to cast provisional ballots outside their designated precincts.
Florida -- which was joined in early-voting Monday by Colorado, Texas and Arkansas -- is not the first state to conduct early balloting this year. Voters in Michigan, Missouri and Iowa have been able to cast presidential ballots since last month. But the passionate buildup to early voting here is virtually unrivaled.
Chants echoed off the tile in the Miami government center as the 11 a.m. start of early voting approached: "Let's go vote. No more Bush."
The overwhelmingly Democratic partisan crowds, with large numbers of black voters, voiced an almost universal outrage about the 2000 election.
"It was a rip-off," said Sonia Bethel, a nursing home assistant who proudly displayed the ticket that labeled her as early voter number 1.
Bethel, a native of the Bahamas voting for the first time, said she would cast her ballot for Sen. John F. Kerry because he represented her best hope of getting better health insurance for her eight children.
The signs around Bethel guided voters in English, Spanish and Kreyol: "Early voting, Votacion anticipada, Vote Pi Bone." Outside, a lanky man pounded a bongo, and young women lingering under shade trees swiveled their hips.
The Rev. Lennox Yearwood, beads of perspiration building on his forehead, called out a steady rap: "All souls to the polls. We gonna bang that ballot box."
Cynthia Hibnick, one of thousands of lawyers who will be volunteering to work as poll watchers Nov. 2, craned her neck at the end of a long line as she tried to follow the rapping preacher's rhymes.
"I'm worried that every vote won't count," said Hibnick, 46. "The state of Florida risks being the laughingstock of the country again."
Detorres sees chaos as more of a certainty than a risk. "I expect a fiasco in Florida voting," he said.
At least this time the dead will be able to vote legally. Miami-Dade election officials said Monday that anyone who dies between the time they cast an early ballot and Nov. 2 can be assured their vote will still be counted.