Will early votes ease long lines?

Florida expects wait despite early ballots

Election 2008

November 03, 2008|By New York Times News Service

By the time polls open tomorrow morning, officials predict that as many as 35 percent of Florida voters already will have cast ballots via early voting or absentee ballot.

Good thing.

That's nearly 4 million people who can stay away while the rest of the state's Nov. 4 electorate - an estimated 5.6 million people - votes the old-fashioned way: at the precinct polling place.

Early and absentee voters have relieved pressure on polling places in advance of what many say will be a monumental turnout. But a St. Petersburg Times analysis indicates that it won't be enough to reduce long lines on Election Day if projections hold true.

The numbers of new registered voters are so large (more than 1 million this year) and the expected total turnout for the election is so high (85 percent of 11.2 million registered voters) that traffic in Florida polling places still will be heavier than it was in 2004.

In addition, most Florida voters will be using optical scan ballots for the first time, and election officials expect it to take them longer to vote on the new system than it did on the old touch screen machines.

All signs point to longer lines than in 2004, when many people waited an hour or more to vote.

"Imagine if early voting wasn't there," said Sean Greene, a manager for electionline.org, an election information project of the Pew Center on the States.

The average Florida polling place had 718 voters on Election Day 2004. That's 60 voters per hour. If turnout projections hold true tomorrow, the average precinct could see 810 voters, or 67 voters per hour.

In Pinellas, an average of 72 voters an hour could go through each precinct, an increase of six over 2004. Hillsborough's per-precinct traffic stands to increase to 77 voters an hour, up four voters over 2004.

In Miami-Dade County, where there are fewer precincts per voter, the traffic could increase by 20 voters an hour.

"There's an energy and an excitement and an interest that I have not seen in my 31 years doing this," Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said. "Voters are generally excited about a presidential election, but this is off the charts."

Experts credit big issues and the prospect of electing the first black president or the first female vice president.

How you react to the coming onslaught depends on your outlook. Some voting advocates, wary of scaring people away from the polls, say long waits are not optimal but that it's the price of democracy. Others say excessive wait times are good reason to worry about voters being disenfranchised.

Election officials tend to take a brighter view. Their attitude toward high turnout: Bring it on. "You've got to remember we live for this stuff," Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said. "The more, the merrier. If it means headaches on Election Day, that's a headache I want."

Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a voter advocacy group, is less optimistic.

"We are not prepared for that level of engagement in our democracy," she said. "These waits in line are serious because some voters do not have the opportunity to wait."

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