NEW PORT RICHEY — Helen Kavafes thought casting her ballot on the first day of early voting would keep her from long lines on Election Day.
Unfortunately for her, hundreds of other people Monday had the same idea, causing up to hour-long waits and unexpectedly high voter turnout in Pasco County.
"I never expected to have such a turnout for the first day," said Kavafes, 80, of New Port Richey, who waited an hour to vote at the West Pasco Government Center. "I guess that's wonderful."
The 4,553 people who voted Monday at seven Pasco locations dwarfed the start of early voting in the last presidential election in 2004, when 1,473 people showed up. Pasco voters well exceeded that number within the first three hours Monday.
"Turnout has been fantastic," Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said.
Voters said the hotly contested presidential race drove them to early voting locations, and the sour economy increased their urgency. The waits in central Pasco locations ranged from a few minutes to nearly a half-hour.
West Pasco's turnout was the most intense. But voters and county employees didn't expect the line to be long at 9:30 a.m. — 30 minutes before voting was allowed to start at the government center.
By noon, the line constantly ran through the hall and out the main doors of the county building, as workers scurried to keep up. Outside, volunteers for local candidates and Barack Obama waved signs, while a band of youths protested abortion to the strumming of a guitar. It felt like Election Day arrived two weeks early.
"If Disney World or Busch Gardens operated like this, they'd go out of business," quipped Ron Trujillo, 63, of New Port Richey after finally casting his ballot.
At the Land O'Lakes office, voters had to take a number and wait to be called. Lisa McGann, 32, of New Port Richey decided to try to make it through the 20- to 30-minute wait, while her husband renewed a license at the tax collector's office next door.
The presidential race made her do it. She planned to vote for Republican John McCain "for homeland security and the economy."
But a waiting Manny Lajmiri, 47, of Land O'Lakes backed Obama. "Things haven't been so good the last eight years, and I feel we need a change," the native of Iran said.
Corley acknowledged it remains to be seen whether the first day is more than early exuberance. But he said the turnout was above what his staff expected, putting the county on pace to exceed the 30,000 early voter turnout of 2004.
Already, nearly one of every 13 Pasco voters have made their pick, including Monday's early voters and the 18,124 people who have turned in absentee ballots.
Times staff writer Lisa Buie contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6232.