Prodded by a supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist ordered Tuesday that early voting hours immediately be expanded statewide through the weekend.
The Republican governor's executive order extends hours at all 267 early voting sites for four hours each weekday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Friday, and for four hours on the weekend, for a total of 12 hours over Saturday and/or Sunday.
Crist did not order any additional early voting sites, something critics have pushed for in Pinellas County.
Crist's executive order came as early voting in Florida climbed past the 1.1-million mark, with county totals showing more Democrats than Republicans voting early.
Voters have stood in line for up to four hours in heavily Democratic Broward County.
"Frankly, watching news accounts of the long lines gave me concern for the health, safety and welfare of my fellow Floridians, particularly, perhaps, senior citizens," Crist said.
The order came just hours after Crist, a prominent supporter of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, said he didn't think he had the authority to override the state law that restricts early voting hours.
That was before he spoke by phone with state Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, an Obama supporter, who cited a 2002 order by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
Bush's order delayed poll closings statewide for two hours in the primary election of Sept. 10, 2002, after precinct openings in Broward and Miami-Dade counties were stalled in the first election using touch-screen voting machines.
"I've had a good conversation with our general counsel as well as Rep. Gelber," Crist said Tuesday afternoon at a hastily called news conference.
Crist and Gelber, the outgoing House Democratic leader who is running for state Senate, have a warm relationship, but Gelber has been an outspoken critic of Republicans in the Legislature for what he considers a deliberate reduction of early voting hours to diminish Democratic turnout.
By comparison, Republicans have long commanded the advantage in filing absentee ballots.
Democrats in Florida's congressional delegation sent Crist a letter last week urging him to expand early voting. Crist's chief elections official, Kurt Browning, responded that "there is no means ... under the law" to extend early voting.
But on Tuesday, Browning wrote the governor a second letter requesting Crist to extend the hours of early voting.
Reaction was mixed from county election supervisors, who are scrambling to get ready for a massive turnout on Tuesday while juggling absentee ballot requests and resolving problems with some voter registration forms.
"We've been supportive of expanded hours," said Pinellas' Deborah Clark, who is under fire for opening only three early voting sites. "We're good to go."
In Tampa, Kathy Harris, counsel to Hillsborough elections chief Buddy Johnson, said: "This is going to have a tremendous impact on us." She said it would cost her office $98,000 to extend the hours.
In Pasco, where early voting turnout Tuesday reached 35,000, breaking the 2004 record, supervisor Brian Corley said: "Obviously it's going to put a strain on us, but we'll make it work."
Crist's order is fraught with political implications, and Democrats were first to celebrate the decision. Party chairwoman Karen Thurman said Crist "did the right thing."
The Republican Party soon followed by saying the GOP has always wanted "as many legal, legitimate voters to participate in the elections process" as possible.
Both McCain's and Obama's Florida campaigns applauded Crist's decision.
Crist, who will campaign with McCain in Miami, Tampa and West Palm Beach today, said he was not concerned with the perception that his order could help Obama's chances in Florida.
"This is not a political decision. This is a people decision," Crist said. "I take an oath, back in January of '07, to carry out the Constitution for all the people of this state. That is my duty."
Voters in line in downtown St. Petersburg wish the governor had gone further. Early voting participation in Pinellas County has lagged behind other counties where more sites are open.
Clark, the county elections supervisor, said her office's aggressive absentee ballot campaign is more cost effective and easier for voters because they can vote at home.
"I would like to see Pinellas open more," said Jeff Poole, 51, who lives in St. Petersburg's Feather Sound and stood in line Tuesday at the County Building at 501 First Ave. N. "There's a sizable portion of the population that would like to vote early."
Times staff writers Jennifer Liberto, Alex Leary, Janet Zink, Craig Pittman and Austin Bogues contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.
Expanded early voting
Early voting locations will be open in all counties from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. today, Thursday and Friday. This weekend, hours vary:
Pinellas: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Hillsborough: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday.
Pasco: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday.
Hernando: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday.