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.
Republicans say they are merely focusing on precincts Democrats won by large margins in 2000. Spokeswoman Mindy Tucker Fletcher accused Meek of concocting controversies to stir the Democratic base. "It's the 15th, 16th or 17th thing they've come up with that is just all wrong," she said.
Many of the concerns about long lines on Election Day -- and the voters they might discourage -- have been fed by television footage of giant turnouts for early voting. More than 1.8 million people have voted early or by absentee ballot, nearly 20 percent of the state's 10.3 million voters. One woman in an early-voting line in Tampa said she had gotten automated calls from Kerry, actor Danny DeVito, Jesse L. Jackson and Bill Clinton, though she had to hang up on the former president's recording because her mother clicked in on call waiting.
Some have waited more than three hours to cast early ballots, and there have been reports of pizza deliveries being made to people waiting in line and of couriers standing in lines at election offices to deliver absentee ballots. Early voting has favored Democrats, but Republicans are enthused by a 2 to 1 advantage for white, Republican voters over black, Democratic voters in early ballots cast in Duval County, where the city of Jacksonville and its large block of African American voters is critical to Democrats.
"If we had turned out more of our base the last time, we would have done a lot more to eliminate the deficit" in the popular vote, said Wallace Klussman, a member of the Texas Strike Force, a group campaigning for Bush in Jacksonville.
Operatives on both sides are obsessing over Florida's Hispanic vote, and the angling to appeal to Spanish speakers is intense. "No Mas Bush" bumper stickers are in such demand that they are approaching collectible status. Kerry chanted the slogan Friday in downtown Miami and delivered several lines in Spanish: "Esta es la eleccion mas importante de nuestras vidas," he said. (This is the most important election of our lives.) The president, who often incorporates Spanish into campaign appearances, told a crowd Sunday in Coral Gables, scene of the first presidential debate, that they should vote to retain first lady Laura Bush, whom he described as "bella," beautiful.
Calle Ocho, where men in guayaberas lean into roadside windows for cups of cafe Cubano, is mockingly referred to as "the Berlin Wall" by political activists in Miami these days. Republicans clump on one side at Cafe Versailles, the city's most famous Cuban restaurant, and Democrats gather at the Kerry campaign office across the street, hoping to peel off a few votes from traditionally Republican Cuban American voters angry about new policies restricting family travel to the island.
"There are some closet Democrats over there," said Lourdes Cantilla, nodding her head across the crowded boulevard in the heart of Little Havana.
Democrats hope the influx of Puerto Ricans to the Orlando area will act as a counterweight to what is still expected to be a heavily GOP vote in parts of South Florida. Puerto Ricans typically vote for Democrats, but Republicans have tried to steer support to the president by placing three Puerto Rican candidates on the ballot for state and local offices.
But they have not convinced Norma Alvarez, who moved to Florida a year ago from Puerto Rico. Alvarez, sipping coffee at her sister's Orlando home, said she fears for her son who is in the U.S. Army and will go to Afghanistan in March. "I'm very worried about a lot of things that are going on -- the war, the economy, health," she said. "Life is getting harder."
Much of the work to find disaffected voters, such as Alvarez, is done by out-of-state volunteers.
Juanita Brown, who had the words "Kerry Si!" painted on her arm, voted early in California and flew to Florida to encourage women to vote. She watched Bruce Springsteen sing "Promised Land" and the Kerry campaign anthem "No Surrender" next to her mother, Millie Cowan, who left the mountains of North Carolina to vote near her winter home in Florida. "This is the most important election in my lifetime," Cowan, 83, said at the raucous rally.
Doug McGregor, Florida coordinator for the College Republican National Committee, wanted to witness one of his candidate's last big Florida events, too. But he started thinking that he might be able to win the election himself by persuading 50 Bush supporters to vote in the same time it would have taken him to attend the president's rally at Tinker Field in Orlando.
"I was torn," he said. With time slipping away he had to make a choice. He went after the 50 voters.
Russakoff reported from Tampa and Orlando. Staff writer Darryl Fears contributed to this report from Jacksonville.