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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Four hour wait to vote at USF



UPDATE: 8:45 p.m.: Students drank coffee and ate cookies. Someone brought out speakers from a computer and began playing music. They broke out in dance when Aretha Franklin's Respect hit the speakers.

The last man standing in line to vote at the University of South Florida tonight is sophomore Jeremiah Warren, 21, of Panama City. He's a first time voter. The football player went to class today, then to football practice and then showered and set out to vote. He went to the wrong voting place on campus and was redirected to the Marshall Center. He arrived at 6:59 p.m. -- a minute before closing time -- and a pollworker immediately closed off the line behind him.

"It's just important to get my vote out," he said. "As my friend said, 'If you don't vote, you can't say anything. Plus, it's a chance to elect a black president."

As the clock neared 9 p.m., scores of students remained in line inside and outside the Marshall Center at the University of South Florida waiting to vote, many with I-Pods in their ears as they put up with a wait of almost 4 hours.

"I'm going to wake up at 5 a.m. next time and make sure I"m the first person there at 7 a.m.,'' said first-time voter Kiara Hepburn, 18, a freshman who waited 3 hours and 45 minutes to cast her ballot for Barack Obama.

She said her wait was made tolerable by free sandwiches, water, lemonade and crackers that volunteers handed out, but once she got into the precinct she saw about six voting booths available for students, some of which were empty. She said the big problem pollworkers were having was trying to figure out where everyone was registered. 

A pollwatcher, attorney Fred Evenson, of the group Election Protection, said the pollworkers were trying to process the names of thousands of students waiting to vote in a 160-square-foot room.

"A lot of the booths are unused because they're not processing people fast enough,'' he said.

Around 7:35 p.m., Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson arrived at the scene. 

"There are 300 registered voters in this district, but we probably have 1,000 voting,'' Johnson said. "It's an exciting thing.''

He explained that the students normally vote absentee, but this year students who forgot wanted to make sure that their votes counted. Then he hurried inside, and said he would have more to say later.

Blake Thaxter, 18, waited in line with his friends thanking volunteers for the "nourishment.'' He said the line is "a little longer than expected. Maybe next time they should play music for everyone waiting.''   

Kathy Harris, general counsel for the Supervisor of Elections Office, acknowledged the wait was long, but said the polls will stay open as long as people are waiting in line there.

About 6:30 the office sent a laptop and extra staff to help out and speed up the process, Harris said.

After Johnson emerged from the Marshall precinct, he was asked if he underestimated the number of students who came to vote: "Oh, sure,'' he said. Adding, "this is not a mistake. It's an extraordinary event.''

The room, he said, was inadequate to the task.  "This is all the room we have,'' he said. "Next time we'll get a bigger room.''

Asked if he expected such a turnout, he said, "Not in these numbers.''

"The day has been an extraordinarliy smooth day. The history of these two precincts is that there's much less turnout.''

Two precincts that vote at USF's location, and the law lets people change their addresses, which was taking up a lot of extra time, he said. 

Johnson said he expected lot of students to vote via absentee as they did last time but "the absentee tradition is not in place today.''

There was a 30-minute period where they ran out of ballots, he said.

Still, he was upbeat about the situation.

"if every precinct turned out like this, the symphony of democracy would be really really sweet,'' he said.

Precinct 353 has 300 registered voters, but 900 have voted there today. That's because students are trying to change their address so that they can vote at this precinct, she said. Those change-of-address requests are what is slowing the process down, she said.

The delay had nothing to do  with the size of the facility or number of voting booths. The time it takes to change the addresses is what is causing the delay, she said.

Voter Sarah Johnstone, 20, agreed that pollworkers had trouble finding out students correct addresses, and also said that students took a long time to vote on constitutional amendments.

But William Hood, 24, said he voted at the Marshall Center four years ago, and the scene was similar: lines were long and voting booths few in a small room. "This is the Marshall Center with huge ballrooms and such. I think it's ridiculous."

As Mike Yeager came out of the USF precinct he yelled out, "Jesus Christ, what a nightmare!'' Wearing a green USF tee shirt and white USF hat, he said he voted for Obama after waiting three hours and 20 minutes. "Originally, it was two and a half hours, but they screwed up my voting precinct.''

Four years ago he voted on campus with an address in the area and never changed his registration, but when he came back today, he said, the address was listed elsewhere even though he had never updated his registration.

He called Obama "the lesser of two evils,'' but said he stuck through the long line because this is America's only patriotic duty.

"If you don't, then you don't get to complain about what happens for the next four years, and I complain a lot,'' he said.

Paul Baldwin, 18, a freshman, waited three and a half hours for his first time to vote, because "I want to have a say in my country, and I love my country, so I came out to vote.''

He wore a Richard Nixon pin on his hat, a nose ring and a jean vest with metal studs on it.

He said he'll never forget the experience, as he munched on free snacks provided by volunteers and discussing politics with his friends.

"First time you vote, you wait four hours,'' he said, laughing. "Hope it's not a foreshadow of things to come.''   

Earlier in the day, workers from the elections office arrived at the campus with 10 more voting booths, but were seen putting up just five more because of a lack of space bringing the total to at least 10 voting booths at USF. Soon after, students said the wait was down to one hour or less.

More than 100 people waited to vote outside the Marshall Center at the University of South Florida this morning -- with waits of at least 90 minutes -- prompting the elections office to send more voting booths to the location.

Two precincts, 352 and 353, were voting in room 1504 of the student center. Voters coming out initially said there were only three booths inside.

"I just wish they had more, but they probably can't have more because they don't have enough poll workers," said Gloria Cheung, 18, who had brought her laptop with her for company. She was still in line after an hour and 20 minutes.

Christy Brinkworth, 18, had been waiting for an hour and 20 minutes at about 1 p.m. and had class at 3:30.

"Hopefully, it won't take that long," she said.

A spokeswoman in the office of Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson couldn't explain why only three booths were available for two precincts, but told a reporter that more were headed to the site. Shortly after 1 p.m. voters said five voting booths had been set up.

Laitishia Crutchfield, 20, who waited three hours in line, said the two extra voting booths poll workers hastily set up included one that was made up of folders that had been paperclipped together to create a makeshift booth. Another was a plastic sheet that had been erected for voters to hide behind.

"There should have been at least 10 booths," said Marine Favier, 18, at about 1:15 p.m. "The line is stretching and it's cold outside. It could rain."

Jamie Hunt, 19, waited two hours and 33 minutes to vote. "They need more people checking names and more booths. They need a bigger room. It's really small in there."

Voters were handed information sheets about the constitutional amendments on the ballot, in the hopes that it would speed the voting process. The crowd was orderly and in general good natured about the wait.

"I think they didn't anticipate such a large turnout on campus," said Rose Rezaei, 21, who voted for Obama. "In any situation, you want to prepare for more turnout than you think."

Added: Blake Pablo, 19, who waited 2 hours and 20 minutes to vote for McCain at one of three voting booths: "It's absolutely ridiculous. We have what, 40,000 students -- not all on campus -- but still."

Some students didn't mind the wait like B.J. Daniels, 19, of Tallahassee, a first-time voter who waited more than an hour and a half to vote for Obama.

"I expected I'd have to wait longer," said Tamara Slagle, 18, who voted for Obama after about 2 hours in line.

"I probably should have voted early," countered Matt Gill, 18, who waited two and a half hours to vote for Obama. "But I thought it could have been worse."

While some students left the long lines to attend class on time, most came back or vowed to. Jude Lucien, a senior, reached the front of the line only to leave for class. When he came back, the wait was noticably shorter.

"I came in the morning," Lucien, 22, a senior, said. "I was in line at 7:15. I got to that door at 9:50. But I had to go to class for a presentation. I came back. Took me 30 minutes."

He said he saw between five and eight voting booths when he finally cast his ballots in Room 1504.

"The Marshall Center is big enough," he said. "They could have done it in another location. It was muggy in there."

Justin George, Michael Van Sickler, Times staff writers

[Last modified: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 11:39am]


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