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Published Oct. 28, 2008

Florida's civic health is in sad shape. We're 47th in the nation, according to rankings just released by the National Conference on Citizenship and the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship. Floridians don't volunteer enough, don't work together much to solve community problems and don't vote in high numbers. Hoping to boost civic engagement, particularly among students, former Sen. Bob Graham, a key mover behind the Florida center, outlined the depressing report a few days ago to a room full of students at his old school, Miami Senior High.

But there's a cure around the corner: Election Day. It's a week from today. So vote. Send in that ballot you requested. Or vote early. Or vote on Election Day, if that suits you. But vote.

Some new numbers are encouraging. Floridians have signed up in droves for this election. In just the past few months, 629,000 new voters have registered. In fact, they account for two-thirds of all new voters since the 2004 presidential election.

Graham put the question succinctly: "Will this surge of interest be a one-day phenomenon - Nov. 4? Or is it the beginning of a sustained interest and engagement in the civic and political institutions of America?"

The heartening registration trends and the enthusiasm of the electorate suggest that it's the latter, and the numbers are even better among minorities, groups that often feel disenfranchised. The number of black voters has risen by more than 11 percent just since the end of July, and the number of Hispanic voters has gone up by 9 percent in that same time. (A point of reference: Four years ago, nearly three in 10 black voters in Florida weren't even confident that their ballots would be counted correctly.)

These new and improved numbers matter only if people who have registered to vote take the next step and cast a ballot.

While voting is a civic duty, Graham believes the Legislature should not make it hard, that the "goal ought to be to encourage people to vote." Among his ideas are two simple ones for the Legislature to consider when it convenes: Expand the hours of early voting, and allow college libraries to be early voting sites. And here's one of ours: Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark should open more than the minimum three early voting sites. Her stubborn insistence to emphasize voting by mail instead of voting early in person is the reason the portion of Pinellas voters who voted early last week is minuscule compared to other large counties.

But that's for later. Right now, it's time to vote. In Florida, 11,247,634 people are eligible. In 2000, George W. Bush won Florida - and therefore the election - by 537 votes. Don't let anyone tell you that your vote doesn't count. It does. But only if you cast one.

946,344 more Florida voters than in 2004*

460,827 more Florida Democrats than in 2004

217,106 more Florida no party voters than in 2004

171,809 more Florida Republicansthan in 2004

*Two-thirds of those registered between July 28 and Oct. 6

10.3-million Florida voters in 2004

11.25-million Florida voters in 2008