Politics & Government

Voters in critical Florida casting ballots as early voting begins

The 2008 election officially began with early voting at 7 a.m. Monday, but some could barely wait until then.

The sun hadn't fully risen in the sky when Blanche Norwood, 57, made her way to a voting booth in the lobby of Miami-Dade County Hall.

Only 13 others had voted ahead of Norwood, who works at Treasure Isle Nursing Center in North Bay Village.

''It's very important to me to get my ballot cast,'' said Norwood, an avid Obama supporter who questioned where her ballot was being taken after she entered it into the machine. "They said they're locking it in a bin and at the end of the day they get a police escort to the elections department.''

Norwood said she was told by a poll worker that she couldn't vote wearing an Obama T-shirt. She said she was told she'd either have to take it off or turn it inside out. But that was quickly cleared up by site clerk Javier Gonzalez, who said voters are permitted to wear what they wish.

By 7:30 a.m., the line at County Hall was about two dozen deep. Eight at a time were permitted to pick up their ballots, which took about a minute each. Then voters were off to the 39 voting booths and the 12 scanners. There were also five Ivotronic machines for folks with disabilities.

Out front of County Hall a small group was milling around holding signs for and against many of the ballot questions. For the most part, though, it was business as usual at County Hall.

The Service Employees International Union had representatives helping a few people to the polls, and WMBM-1490 AM set up shop about 100 feet from the polls, awaiting Bishop Victor Curry, who was set to do a radio show.

Kim Diehl, 33, a communications worker with SEIU had just voted.

''We voted early because we want to be the first in line at this historic occasion,'' she said.

The parking lot was full at the Aventura Government Center at 6:45 a.m., with the line 20 to 30 deep before the doors even opened.

Laura Mills of Aventura power-walked to the polls and was among the first to cast her vote.

''We expect to see a bigger rush than ever of people voting,'' Mills said. ``We want to make sure our vote counts and get out here and do it quick.''

At the West Kendall Regional Library, about 30 early voters lined up before 7 a.m.

Thirty minutes later only a handful had finished voting.

The first in line, West Kendall resident Esperanza Acosta, said it was slow.

''I expected it to be much faster,'' she said. ``Election Day is going to be a big mess if people don't vote early.''

One voter walked into the library -- and came right back out. The line was too long, so he would come back later.

Dozens also showed up early at Miami Beach City Hall Monday.

Though anecdotal, these cases were early indications that the enthusiasm for this historic presidential election is as high as expected.

In all, there are 20 early polling places in Miami-Dade; Broward, with 17 early voting locations, begins casting ballots at 10 a.m.

Begun in 2002, early voting in Florida is now an oft-used convenience -- along with a make-or-break time for many political campaigns. Yet that does not mean voters won't encounter lines, with a recent Pew Charitable Trust report suggesting the switch to optical-scan ballots may slow down early voting.

Lines or no lines, early voting in Florida is ''going to dramatically improve turnout,'' predicted Steve Hildebrand, deputy campaign manager for presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

Hildebrand said hundreds of thousands of African-American and under-35 voters stayed home during the 2004 presidential race, and ``this early voting period allows us two weeks to really encourage and motivate these voters.''

Though popular with voters in both parties, Democrats have typically taken advantage of early voting at slightly higher rates than Republicans in Florida. Absentee voting, meanwhile, is where Republicans have long held a decisive advantage.

The South Florida AFL-CIO will kick off Monday morning with a pro-Obama rally in Overtown, followed by a march to the polling place at downtown's Government Center building.

Later in the day, Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek will hold two separate early voting rallies -- one in Miami Gardens, the second in Hallandale Beach.

Republicans, however, aren't ceding the early vote tally. Florida GOP spokeswoman Erin VanSickle noted that in the January presidential primary -- which played a key role in Republican John McCain's nailing down the nomination -- "more Republicans cast early votes, more Republicans voted absentee, and more Republicans turned out at the polls.''

''The time-tested Republican grass-roots machine is running on all cylinders,'' VanSickle wrote via e-mail, adding that when it comes to the final vote tally, "we are confident that we will get more voters out to the polls.''

Read the full story at MiamiHerald.com.