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Time to find out if Florida's ready to vote

Claudette Otto helps get the Crystal Beach Community Hall ready before poll workers and volunteers came to set up voting equipment Monday in preparation for today’s election.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Claudette Otto helps get the Crystal Beach Community Hall ready before poll workers and volunteers came to set up voting equipment Monday in preparation for today’s election.

TALLAHASSEE — As many as 5-million Floridians could cast ballots today as the nation's biggest battleground state renders its judgment in what polls show is a very close presidential race in Florida.

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in all 67 counties. The weather forecast is for partly cloudy skies in most of the state with temperatures in the 70s or low 80s.

All voters are required to bring identification to the polls that show a photo and a signature, such as a driver's license. Voters who don't have such a single form of ID can bring two separate pieces to satisfy the requirement.

More than 4.3-million people already have voted early or by absentee ballot, but it could be a very long night for counting results.

Turnout is expected to eclipse the 83 percent that voted in the 1992 presidential race. Ballots in some counties stretch three and four pages long. And today marks the largest group of voters using the new optical scan machines all at the same time.

Plus, as many as 10,556 voters could be snared in the state's controversial "no match" voter verification law. That could require them to cast provisional ballots today because the information they provided on a voter registration form does not match information in state databases.

The result is lines at polling places and election supervisors predict voting could continue well past 7 p.m. By law, anyone standing in line when polls close must be allowed to cast a vote, no matter how long it takes.

"There will be lines," said Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles in Orlando. "It's important to remember how voters vote: They vote on their way to work or on their way home from work, and a lot of them vote on their lunch hour."

In addition to choosing the next president of the United States, Florida will cast votes for Congress, the state Legislature, a slew of county and city contests and six proposed amendments to the state Constitution.

In the Tampa Bay area today, some polls will be very crowded, and not just with voters.

The Justice Department has assigned observers to polls in Hillsborough, Duval and Seminole counties to ensure compliance with federal voting rights laws. The Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress, will send teams to Pinellas and Hillsborough to ensure voting access for elderly voters or voters with disabilities.

The Obama and McCain campaigns have dispatched thousands of lawyers to act as poll watchers and to assist voters with any problems.

The two political parties squared off briefly in a Tallahassee courtroom Monday and a judge declined to rule on a Democratic Party lawsuit against the Republican Party. The GOP filed sworn affidavits saying it has no plans to challenge any voter's eligibility based upon a mailing sent to many Democratic voters.

The nearly 4.3-million ballots already cast amount to about 38 percent of the 11.2-million registered voters in Florida.

At that pace, Secretary of State Kurt Browning said, voter turnout could meet or exceed the current Florida record of 83 percent, set in 1992.

"Be patient and be prepared," Browning advised. "Lines are not necessarily a sign of something bad or something gone wrong. Lines are a sign of a healthy democracy."

Browning said he had spoken with Gov. Charlie Crist's staff and urged that if there is any "whimper" of talk about extending polling hours that "we really need to make sure it's the right thing to do."

For the first time, the state won't release any election results until 8 p.m. That is being done to accommodate voters in much of the Panhandle, which is on Central time, meaning the polls close an hour later than the Florida peninsula.

"My job as the secretary," Browning said, "is to ensure a fair, honest, accurate election, and that's what we're going to deliver for Florida."

Time to find out if Florida's ready to vote 11/03/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 4, 2008 5:23pm]

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