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Florida turnout high; Hillsborough glitches reported

Florida voters piled into polling places in large numbers Tuesday, an impressive showing that stretched the state's new paper ballot system but appeared to not overwhelm it.

In the Tampa Bay area and across the state, citizens, election officials and voter advocates reported an assortment of glitches: missing ballot pages, malfunctioning scanners used to count ballots, poll worker errors and, in some places, a lack of preparedness for large numbers of voters. Officials quickly addressed problems, or voters simply overcome them.

The exception: Hillsborough County, where poll workers failed to give hundreds of voters the second page of their ballot and where hundreds of student voters at the University of South Florida descended on small polling place with room for only a handful of voting booths. Hundreds waited for more than four hours to vote.

Hillsborough surpassed every county in Florida for the most complaints registered with the Election Protection Coalition's Our Vote Live Website.

And two hours after the polls closed statewide – save for those that were still serving long lines – Hillsborough lagged other local counties in posting results.

Officials had been predicting one of the highest turnouts in decades because of the historic and contentious presidential battle between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.

But early returns suggested turnout statewide could fall short of the 82 percent record of the 1992 presidential race.

The statewide surge in early voting and absentee balloting was mimicked this morning when voters lined up before sunrise to cast their ballots. Wait times of an hour or more were common throughout the Tampa Bay area.

That dropped off sharply early afternoon. Elections officials expect another surge this evening as people leave work and head home.

By 6 p.m. Tuesday, an estimated 36 percent of Pinellas registered voters had been to the polls, on top of 34 percent who availed themselves of absentee and early voting before Election Day. That put the total Pinellas turnout at about 70 percent.

Despite new machinery, new procedures and a smorgasbord of election day glitches, Secretary of State Kurt Browning predicted a relatively smooth count.

"Although we're talking about many, many more ballots being cast today,'' Browning said. "Still I would anticipate the results still being in hopefully around the same time that they were in the past," meaning before 10 p.m.

Not all voters were happy.

Reports indicate that hundreds of Hillsborough voters in at least six precincts got only half a ballot.

Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson said his office has received calls from voters complaining that poll workers gave them only one of two ballot pages. He wasn't sure which precincts had problems.

"Apparently a couple of clerks slept through their training," Johnson said. "Everything else is running smooth as silk."

Johnson said anyone who only cast one page of a ballot could return fill out a provisional ballot for the rest.

"I know it's so important, this election. People do want that change,'' said Pam Cox, who supports Obama and was reading a romance novel at a north St. Petersburg precinct to pass the time.

Michael Newman Jr., coffee cup in hand, waited with more than 100 people outside St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Spring Hill. A registered Democrat, Newman said he is voting for Republican John McCain.

"Terrorists won't test him,'' Newman said.

Florida, with its 27 electoral votes, is rated a toss-up by several polls, so today's outcome could once again determine which candidate claims the White House.

With polls in the Panhandle closing at 8 p.m. Eastern time, results of the presidential race may not be clear until late tonight.

Even though almost four voters in 10 voters already had cast absentee ballots or voted early statewide, election officials expect heavy voting to continue throughout the day. Warm dry weather is blanketing the entire state, always a boon for a big turnout.

Jennifer Jordan, 34, of Spring Hill arrived at St. Joan of Arc with daughter Emily in tow.

She was eager to cast her ballot for McCain and Sarah Palin.

Referring to her daughter, Jordan said, "It will open up a lot of doors for her, that's for sure."

Jordan said she watched on TV as people waited for early voting across the country and anticipated a long line. "I'd really expected a longer wait, but it only took 15 minutes," she said.

Though initial waits of an hour or more were common around the Tampa Bay area, lines dwindled rapidly at polling places as the morning wore on and earlybird voters headed for work. By 10 a.m., people reported waits lasting only five to 10 minutes.

One clear exception was St. Petersburg's African-American neighborhoods, where the flow of voters continued unabated well into the morning.

At Lakeview Presbyterian Church on 22nd Avenue S at 16th Street, 80 to 90 people still waited in line at 9:15. Everyone interviewed said they would vote for Obama.

"I feel so proud to have voted for who I think will be the first black president. I think everyone, whether they're black or white or whatever, realizes it's time for a change,'' said Cynthia Hines, 48, who waited an hour and 40 minutes to cast her ballot.

"I think Florida people will be devastated if McCain becomes president. I've been hollering at everyone to go out and vote today. We can't be cocky. We can't think we won before the race is over. We've just got to tell everyone to get out there and make sure they vote no matter how long the line is.''

Optically scanned ballots, new to many voters, create a paper trail in case a tight race or voting irregularities once again put Florida in the national spotlight.

But paper ballots slow things down, as do provisional ballots, which should be more frequent this go-around, because of the state's "no match, no match'' voter identification law and 2-million new voters who have been added to the rolls since the last presidential election.

Just minutes after the polls opened at 7 a.m., minor problems with machines cropped up, according to voters and reporters making spot checks at polling places.

In Clearwater, Betty Mayeux said ballot scanners were not working at her polling place, 229 Drew St. She was told she could wait for the scanner to be fixed or she could leave the ballot to be scanned later. She left the ballot.

"It made me a little nervous that we had to leave the ballot, but you have to trust them,'' said Mayeux.

About 200 people were lined up at a polling place near Lake Maggiore in St. Petersburg, only to be told the scanners were not working. It was fixed in about 45 minutes. The problem: a paper jam.

At least four separate paper jams at Global Family Fellowship in Clearwater delayed voting for 15 to 20 minutes, said Bill Harting Jr. Some voters left their ballots for poll workers to scan later, but Harting was having none of that.

"I wanted make sure I personally put my ballot through the machine,'' he said. "In past elections votes ended up missing and votes were found later. It was my paper record and I was putting it through.''

Nancy Whitlock, spokeswoman for Pinellas County Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark, could not confirm these reports. Three precincts had problems with scanners, but those were fixed before the polls opened, she said. Paper jams and other glitches can be fixed within minutes, she said.

Her summary for the morning: "So far, so good.''

At the University of South Florida, some students waited for more than two hours to vote, until Johnson's office sent in more voting booths.

Two precincts, 352 and 353, were voting in room 1504 of the Marshall Student center. Voters coming out said there were only three booths inside to accommodate voters.

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

"Hopefully, I'll make it," she said.

A spokeswoman for Johnson's office couldn't explain why only three booths were available for two precincts but said that reinforcements were on the way. Shortly after 1 p.m. voters said five voting booths had been set up.

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

By 1:30, Hillsborough County had wracked up the third most complaints in Florida — after Miami-Dade and Orange counties — on www.ourvotelive.org, a website chronicling voting problems around the country. Pinellas County ranked sixth in Florida, following Broward and Palm Beach.

At Crest Ridge Gardens Community Center in Holiday, Tracy Walker said she waited for two hours, only to be told just before 7 that the machines were not working. By then, more than 100 people were in line, she said.

"I'm frustrated. Why didn't they know this two hours ago?'' she said. "I wanted to make sure I got in by 7 o'clock so I could get to work.''

Walker said didn't know if her supervisor would let her go early so she could vote later in the day.

Pasco County Elections Supervisor Brian Corley said temporary problems with electronic signature machines were reported at five of 139 precincts but poll workers used the old paper system to take down voter names.

In Palm Beach County, officials said that some machines at the 450 polling locations are not accepting ballots because voters are not filling out the second page, which contains proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution.

Gov. Charlie Crist cast his ballot at St. Petersburg's Coliseum, after mistakenly going first to the Mahaffey Theater.

"They changed my polling place," he said. "Today, I was very happy to find the right place."

Crist applauded today's turnout and how the day is progressing.

"I wanted to express to my fellow Floridians of how proud I am of how they have comported themselves in this election process," Crist said. "Over 4-million have already voted in early voting."

Carolyn Griner, 71, also liked the turnout. Neurological problems make it hard for her to stand for long periods, so she carried a folding chair as she advanced through the line in Carrollwood's Plantation subdivision.

"America has forgotten to vote, unfortunately,'' Griner said. "We have got this freedom. We have forgotten why we are here and what we are all about."

Staff writers Austin Bogues, Steve Bousquet, Lisa Buie, Justin George, Nicole Hutcheson, Christina Silva, Tom Scherberger and Ron Matus contributed to this report.

Florida turnout high; Hillsborough glitches reported 11/04/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 5, 2008 12:33am]

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