Voters stand in line to pick up absentee ballots in Doral, Fla., on Sunday. (Alan Diaz / Associated Press…)
TAMPA, Fla. -- In Florida’s Interstate 4 corridor, the vote-rich band that often sways elections in this important swing state, voters were lining up on Monday to pick up absentee ballots. With all the wrangling over access to the polls this year, some said they weren’t taking any chances.
“It made you all the more determined to go out and do your voting,” said Lee Stephens of Tampa, an Obama supporter standing in a quick-moving line at the Hillsborough County supervisor of elections office. “We will not be disenfranchised. I don’t think anybody in Florida ought to be disenfranchised.”
After a turbulent weekend featuring early-morning legal challenges by Democratic lawyers and a fracas at the Miami-Dade elections office, there were few problems reported on Monday. The Broward County elections office – the only South Florida office not to open on Sunday – was open and handing out absentee ballots until 5 pm.
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That decision was praised by Florida Democratic officials, whose hopes of capturing Florida’s 29 electoral votes rest largely on maximizing turnout in South Florida, where early voting is popular. This year, the Republican-controlled Legislature cut the number of early voting days from 14 to eight, leading to five- and six-hour lines at some sites in Miami-Dade. Attorneys filed a federal lawsuit seeking to keep the election offices open past Saturday.
While early voting technically ended on Saturday, offices in five Florida counties provided an alternate method that amounted to the same thing: They opened their offices and passed out absentee ballots that will be due before the polls close on Tuesday. Some voters here went out to their cars, filled them out and stuck them in a locked metal box outside the office door.
“I just wanted to go and get it over with,” said Linwood Poissonnier. “Last year I stood in line for an hour and a half.”
Even with the fewer days, there were 166,917 votes already in Hillsborough County by Monday afternoon – 20% more than in 2008, according to Travis Abercrombie, spokesman for the Hillsborough elections department. About 22% of the county’s voters have already cast ballots in early voting, he said. Another 21% cast absentee ballots, meaning 43% of Hillsborough County voters have voted.
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“I’m 54 years old, and I’ve never seen an election like this,” said Patrice Jones of Temple Terrace, near Tampa, who was picking up an absentee ballot on Monday. She said there always seemed to be interminable lines at the early voting site near her house.
The long lines in Florida were "a clear legacy of the effort to restrict voting this year," said Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan think tank that studies voting issues.
Here in Tampa, the early voting was producing votes for both Obama and Romney. Lori Urvakis, a registered nurse, said she supported just about everything about Obama – except for his healthcare plan, and that was enough to convince her to vote for Romney. “It sounds really bad, but I think if you want healthcare you’ve got to work for it,” she said.
In Miami-Dade, the elections office unexpectedly shut down in the midafternoon Sunday, angering voters in line. But the office was reopened later.
Elections officials in Florida, like those in other important swing states, were bracing for potential trouble on Tuesday from groups organized to challenge voter credentials. Kimberly Kelley, affiliated with a group called Fair Vote Tampa, has challenged the credentials of 76 voters, Abercrombie said; she said some were felons and others had wrong addresses. If those voters show up, they will be allowed to cast provisional ballots and a canvassing board will decide later if they should count.
The group has also announced plans to show up at polling places on Tuesday.
[For the record, 6:20 p.m., Nov. 5: An earlier version of this post said that members of Fair Vote Florida would be allowed inside polling places to monitor voting. They will not be allowed inside but do plan to visit polling places.]