Sunny skies and long lines greeted voters across Tampa Bay on the last day of early voting Saturday as elections officials reported few serious problems with the heavy turnout.
Hillsborough and Pasco counties both reported record-setting numbers for the eight days of early voting, with Pasco setting a single-day record Saturday with about 10,000 early voters and Hillsborough setting a single-day record of 28,728.
Hillsborough reported a total of 166,937 early votes, exceeding the previous record of 146,558 set in 2008. The county also had 143,829 absentee ballots submitted as of Saturday, making for a turnout of 41 percent.
"There is a ton of enthusiasm for this election," said Hillsborough election spokesman Travis Abercrombie, noting that the greater numbers were also the result of more early voting locations and more registered voters.
There were 60,648 total early votes in Pasco along with 54,706 absentee ballots cast, putting turnout at 37 percent so far.
Pinellas County fell short of breaking its 2008 early vote record, but total pre-election turnout was higher than ever, officials said, at close to 40 percent with absentee ballots factored in. The county saw a total of 39,562 early votes and 209,292 absentee ballots submitted.
Hernando County, which had the fewest early voting hours of any county in the state, reported a total of 12,728 early votes and 24,434 absentee ballots returned, making for about 30 percent turnout.
Wait times Saturday were often more than 45 minutes at polling places in Hernando, Hillsborough and Pinellas, sometimes exceeding an hour or more. In Pasco, elections workers said lines averaged about half an hour.
Many voters were like Annie Kenas, 37, of Tarpon Springs, the last person in a line that snaked around the Pinellas County Courthouse in Clearwater at 1:45 p.m.
"I'll gladly stand in line for an hour for the right to vote," she said.
Who could complain with 90-year-old John Maresca of Palm Harbor leaning against his walker just a few feet ahead of her. The first time he voted, the presidential choice involved candidates named Roosevelt and Dewey.
"This isn't a problem," Maresca said bravely.
Mail-in absentee ballots would have saved many voters the trouble of visiting a polling place at the 11th hour. Some forgot. Some refused on general principle to vote absentee.
Earl May Jr., 54, of Seminole dropped off his absentee ballot Saturday in Largo. He said he would have done so sooner but needed time to study the ballot.
"I wanted to get my facts straight," he said.
Lines in South Florida were far longer than in Tampa Bay. In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, wait times of as much as five hours were reported. Wait times at 19 of 20 early voting locations in Miami-Dade were no less than three hours. Voters still waiting in line at the close of some polling locations at 7 p.m. could expect to wait until midnight to vote, elections officials said.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, asked Republican Gov. Rick Scott to extend early voting into Sunday. Scott has rejected calls for an extension.
Residents waited about 30 minutes at the Bloomingdale Library in Valrico in the early afternoon. Karen Slane, 37, of Tampa, had been there almost all day.
As a volunteer with Organizing for America, a group supporting President Barack Obama, she handed out cookies, coffee, water and folding stools and avoided political talk.
"These are nonpartisan cookies and I'm serving nonpartisan coffee," Slane said. "My point is to keep people in line and to make sure they are able to vote."
In South Tampa, Christopher Snyder, 34, a teacher, joked that reading the 11 constitutional amendments on the Florida ballot may have taken longer than standing in line.
Brian Corley, Pasco's supervisor of elections, said he saw many voters with sample ballots, which he said helped cut wait times as voters didn't have to puzzle over those amendments in the booth.
"Democracy is alive and well," Corley said. "People were amazingly patient. It helps that it was a pleasant day out with a slight breeze and sunshine."
More than 4 million early votes had been cast across Florida as of Saturday morning.
State lawmakers cut early voting last year from 14 days to eight. Some voters enduring long lines said the cuts irritated them. Others just shrugged.
"I honestly didn't know they were cut short," said Art Arnett, 30, of Pinellas Park as he arrived to vote at the Election Service Center on Starkey Road in Largo.
Easton Albert, 8, of Clearwater came with his parents, who were voting in Largo. Easton struggled with their lab puppy, Bella, who seemed intent on dragging him into the elections office.
"She's going to vote for Obama," said the boy.
Information from the Miami Herald was used in this report.