Florida's early bird special

October 29, 2004|By Jules Witcover

COCONUT CREEK, Fla. - A hurricane of a different sort has been sweeping over most of Florida this week as voters of all ages and political persuasions have been besieging special polling places in the state's newly mandated provision for early voting.

Here in this retirement community just north of Fort Lauderdale, seniors have been coming to the local library on foot, with walkers and in wheelchairs, giving visible testimony to the intensity of the public desire to make the choice between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry.

With the memory still fresh of the 2000 election in which Mr. Bush ultimately was awarded the White House over Al Gore by a mere 537 Florida votes, these voters express a determination to have their say, and the earlier the better.

Perhaps surprisingly, brief conversations with many of them the other day as they left the library revealed little partisanship, only a desire to avoid the Election Day rush. Gerson Tabak, 84, of nearby Pompano Beach, said he was here because he "anticipated it would be very crowded and I didn't want to wait for the last minute. This is more orderly."

Another voter, Ethel Miskoff of Coconut Creek, acknowledged that she got a nudge from the Democrats. "I got a [recorded] call from Al Gore," she said, "so I thought, `Why not?'"

Mr. Gore himself showed up here on this particular day, reminding voters of the truth of the bromide that "every vote counts," and urging them to cast their ballots no matter what their preference. While he was at it, though, he urged them to vote for Mr. Kerry, telling reporters at the site that "by any objective reasoning" Mr. Bush's four years have been "a failed presidency."

Other political celebrities, both Republican and Democratic, have been working Florida in the midst of this intensive early voting period. Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Mr. Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, all have been here in the last week.

Former President Bill Clinton reminded a huge rally in downtown Miami the other night that he carried Florida in 1996, and said the Democrats "won this state the last two times [but] the last time they didn't count it. We can win it again." Maverick former Democratic Mayor Ed Koch of New York was in the state too - asking early voters to cast their ballots for Mr. Bush.

The early voting here, along with a flood of absentee ballots, threatens to skewer all the polling and early turnout predictions. Seth Kaplan, spokesman for the Miami-Dade County Department of Elections, reported Wednesday that 125,000 early votes had already been cast in the county, along with 165,000 absentee ballots received. Together, that already was about 25 percent of the total 2000 vote there.

While each party contends the early voting favors its candidates, the comments of voters leaving the polls here and at a Miami polling place later almost unanimously emphasized convenience as their prime motivation. "Our voters lead busy lives these days," Mr. Kaplan says. "They don't want to be pigeonholed into one place to vote at one time. If they're working late, they might not vote for president, and they don't want to run that risk."

In many polling places, there has been much griping that the early voting turnout has been so great that voters have had to wait for hours anyway. But one thing the huge early turnout has confirmed: A great many voters didn't need to hear either candidate any longer. They had made up their minds.

Some critics suggest that early voting jumps the gun and may be regretted by voters if Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry commits a serious gaffe in the final days. But Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer overseeing poll-watching operations for the Kerry campaign, notes that undecided voters can still wait for Election Day to cast their ballots.

Judging from the outpouring of early voters, however, Floridians don't want to wait to do their part in avoiding a repetition of the 2000 fiasco, though voting in advance gives no assurance it won't happen again.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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