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Early voting and 'souls to the polls' schedules will vary widely

After the long lines and chaos of Florida's 2012 election, county election supervisors asked the Legislature for greater flexibility in early voting. They got their wish, and in the upcoming general election, that flexibility will be on full display as county early voting schedules will vary widely from county to county in Florida.

Early voting seems to be losing a bit of its luster as both political parties aggressively push "VBM," voting by mail. One key to the outcome of the race for governor between Gov. Rick Scott and Charlie Crist is which party does a better job of ensuring that voters who get mail ballots return them.

Many more people voted by mail than voted early in the Aug. 26 primary, and supervisors anticipate the trend will be more pronounced in the general election. For that reason, many elections officials say, it's not necessary to offer the most number of early voting hours as permitted by law.

State law requires a minimum of 64 early voting hours (8 days and 8 hours each) and allows supervisors a maximum of 168 hours (14 days and 12 hours a day). Seven small counties will offer 64 hours of early voting: Columbia, Glades, Hernando, Highlands, Lafayette, Madison and Walton. Sarasota is the only large county to offer the minimum number of early voting hours required.

The complete county-by-county list of early voting sites and hours is on the state Division of Elections website.

Five counties will offer the maximum number of early voting hours: Charlotte, Orange, Palm Beach, Pinellas and Seminole. Miami-Dade will have 14 days of early voting at more sites than ever, 25, but for eight hours a day, ending at 3 p.m. the first week, 7 p.m. the second week and 4 p.m. on four weekend days. Broward will offer 14 days of early voting, for 10 hours a day weekdays and nine hours a day on weekends.

Every county in the state must offer early voting on at least one Sunday, Oct. 26. But last session, Democratic legislators demanded that the law be changed back to how it was before 2012 to allow early voting on the Sunday two days before election day. The Legislature complied and 11 counties will offer what is known as "souls to the polls." They are Bradford, Broward, Charlotte, Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Seminole and St. Lucie. In every other county, early voting will end on Saturday, Nov. 1.

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