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Paper trail of primary tests Florida's readiness

TALLAHASSEE — It's the paper ballot shakedown cruise.

Florida voters will cast ballots Tuesday in the first statewide election held with new optical-scan voting machines, in a low-key primary seen as a dry run for November.

In most cases, Republican and Democratic voters will choose nominees for federal, state and local races in November, including three Tampa Bay-area congressional seats. With the public in a foul mood over the state's troubled economy, politicians and political advisers will be looking for signs of an anti-incumbent mood in Florida.

A light voter turnout is expected because the election lacks any statewide contest to capture public attention. In an oddity of the Florida political calendar, this is the first time in 12 years that there are no contested races for U.S. Senate, governor or Cabinet offices.

Through last Thursday, about 132,000 people had cast early ballots, but several times that number requested mail ballots.

Still, many voters are distracted by the start of the school year, the Olympics and Tropical Storm Fay, which forced two dozen counties to briefly suspend early voting.

The storm's massive rainfall wreaked havoc on several elections offices, including St. Lucie County, where elections supervisor Gertrude Walker arrived for work one day to find her office flooded, the carpet ruined.

"Half of our office was wet, but it was the half that didn't have the servers or voting equipment," Walker said. "We're open for business. We're dried out, we're open, and we've verified access to all our polling places."

The state's top elections official, Secretary of State Kurt Browning, planned to spend the weekend consulting with elections officials in the counties that received the hardest hit from Fay, including Brevard, St. Johns and Duval, to make sure voting equipment is dry and streets are safe for voters.

"We want to make sure that polling places are sound, that they're able to be gotten to, and that voters are safe when they travel to those voting places," said Browning, a former Pasco County elections supervisor. "And I want to be sure we get accurate results on Tuesday night."

Touch screen voting machines have been discarded throughout Florida for all voters except those with disabilities.

That forced 15 counties, home to more than half of the state's voters, to switch to a system in which voters use a pen to mark their choices by filling in ovals or connecting two arrows, then feeding the ballot into a scanner that reads ballots.

The switch by Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature to an all-paper ballot election was designed to reassure voters that a "paper trail" exists, but it remains to be seen how efficiently county elections officials handle the change.

They have displayed the new equipment at community events, staged mock elections, trained poll workers and even created how-to videos for voters.

"We've been prepared for over a year. We've done everything we possibly could," said Lester Sola, elections supervisor in Miami-Dade, with nearly 1.2-million voters, the most of any county.

"We're good to go," said Pinellas County elections chief Deborah Clark.

Clark declined to project the size of Tuesday's turnout in Pinellas. The county's showing in the last statewide primary in 2006 was 20 percent, the same as the statewide percentage, even though that ballot contained high-profile primaries for governor in both parties.

In a primary, only registered Republicans and Democrats can vote in most contested partisan races, but all voters, regardless of party, can vote in contests for judge, school board, other non-partisan races and referendum questions.

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

. fast facts

Registered voters

(Through July 28)

Republican4,389,698

Democrat3,924,081

No party1,960,073

Other344,667

Total10,618,519



Federal and state primaries to watch

CONGRESS STATE SENATE STATE HOUSE
Tampa Bay: Democrats
Bob Hackworth, Max Linn and Samm
Simpson vie to take on Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young; Democrats Anita de Palma, John Dicks and Bill Mitchell seek to oppose Republican U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis; Democrats Carol Castagnero, John T. Russell, H. David "the flag-pole sitter" Werder vie to oppose Republican U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite.

Palm Beach/Treasure Coast: State Rep. Gayle Harrell, Tom Rooney and Hal Valeche seek GOP nomination to oppose Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Mahoney.
Orlando: Democratic Sen. Gary Siplin faces a challenge from Maurice "Doc" Woodard.

Sarasota, Charlotte: Rep. Michael Grant faces former Rep. Nancy Detert in the Republican primary in Senate District 23.

Broward: Three former Democratic House members, Ken Gottlieb, Tim Ryan and Eleanor Sobel, face off in a primary in Senate
District 31. The winner faces only a write-in candidate in November.
Lake, Marion, Sumter: Will Pruitt, brother of Senate President Ken Pruitt, is opposed by
Marlene O'Toole in the Republican primary in House District 42.

Duval: Mario Rubio, brother of House Speaker Marco Rubio, faces Gordon Morgan and Lake Ray in the GOP primary in House District 17.
Source: Department of State, Division of Elections

Paper trail of primary tests Florida's readiness 08/24/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 25, 2008 6:45am]

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