Long before the doors opened, they lined up outside in the dark. Later, they stood in a cold, steady rain. Some cradled sleeping children as they waited in line for hours.
In an age of voter apathy, these people really wanted to make their voices heard.
Thousands of Tampa Bay residents turned out to the polls Sunday, the last day of early voting. Their passion showed why this has been a record-shattering season of early voting in Florida.
More than a third of the state's registered voters have cast ballots for Tuesday's election, according to numbers released Sunday by the state elections division.
About 37 percent of the 11.2-million registered voters, or 4.2-million, had cast ballots. Nearly 2.6-million of those votes were cast at early voting locations. The rest were submitted via absentee ballot, nearly 1.7-million.
Many who waited in long lines Sunday saw this as their last chance to vote. While it's true that the polls are open for 12 hours on Election Day, a lot of people with children and jobs doubted they would be able to cast ballots on Tuesday.
"That's why we're here," said Andrew Meyer of St. Petersburg. "My wife has to open up her business in the mornings. I work in Tampa and take our two kids to school."
The couple went to St. Petersburg's early voting site and found a line stretching for three blocks. So they drove to Largo, only to wait for two hours.
The lines that snaked around government buildings Sunday were dominated by supporters of Barack Obama. A striking number of them were first-time voters, no matter their age.
"I never cared before," said Stephanie Patten, 31, of Clearwater.
"People around me encouraged me to vote," said Chris Monastra, 31, of Seminole, who waited with his wife and two small children from 7 a.m. until the polls opened at noon. Why vote Sunday? "I can't afford to take a day off. I work for a moving company and don't know when I get off from day to day."
Some counties are reporting double or triple the number of early voters this year compared with 2004, said Jennifer Davis of the Florida Division of Elections.
In Pinellas County, many of the 3,000 people who voted Sunday were angry about long lines. Some criticized the county elections supervisor, Deborah Clark, for opening only three early voting sites, the minimum required by law. (Hillsborough County had 13 sites. Pasco had seven.)
Clark, a Republican, said Sunday that it was difficult to find sites with enough space and parking, and that she hopes to see the Legislature allocate more funding to early voting. She says her office's aggressive absentee ballot campaign is more cost-effective and easier for voters because they can vote at home.
Pinellas had 43,226 early voters and 160,039 absentee voters through Saturday — far fewer early voters and far more absentee voters than Hillsborough or Pasco counties.
Democrats are more likely to visit early voting sites; Republicans are more likely to vote via absentee. Overall, 331,000 more Democrats than Republicans had cast ballots as of Sunday.
Many of the Obama supporters waiting in line Sunday said they didn't trust mail-in ballots. "Not in Florida," said Debra Gooden of Clearwater.
Making their pitch
The long column of voters outside the Supervisor of Elections Office in Largo provided a captive audience for a slew of local politicians.
Jim Coats, Pinellas County's Republican sheriff, matter-of-factly made his case to Obama supporters as he used one of his campaign signs to shield himself from rain.
County Commissioner Karen Seel talked about road construction projects on U.S. 19. Just a few feet away, her opponent, Norm Roche, was giving voters an update on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers score.
Pinellas was the only local county to have early voting as late as Sunday, but Hillsborough voters waited in two-hour lines Sunday for absentee ballots at the County Center in Tampa. Elections employees shuttled groups of 20 on elevators to the 16th floor, where they could fill out ballots in the office or take them home.
Out of 705,000 Hillsborough voters, more than 100,000 have requested absentee ballots and more than 147,000 have already voted, said Herold Lord of the elections office.
Many of those filling out absentee ballots Sunday hoped to avoid a long wait on Tuesday.
"Otherwise I'd probably be standing outside in some other line," said Ed Fine of Lutz. "But I wouldn't miss this for anything."
Staff writers Chandra Broadwater and Joni James contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.