Faced with long lines at some sites, early voters stay patient

Kass Mencher of Philadelphia, center, came to Florida for two weeks to work on the Obama campaign. She was handing out signs and food Saturday morning to early voters in St. Petersburg.
Kass Mencher of Philadelphia, center, came to Florida for two weeks to work on the Obama campaign. She was handing out signs and food Saturday morning to early voters in St. Petersburg.
Published Oct. 28, 2012

TAMPA — Tens of thousands of eager and determined Florida voters patiently stood in long lines Saturday as early voting began in a close presidential race in the nation's biggest battleground state.

Lines snaked around corners of libraries, and voters pored over sample ballots, waiting their turns to complete one of the longest ballots in Florida history and shape the result of the contest between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

More than 20,000 people cast early votes in Hillsborough County on Saturday, while about 8,000 people voted in person in Pasco County and another 4,500 people cast ballots in Pinellas.

Few people complained and county election supervisors reported no major problems on the opening day of a shortened, eight-day early voting schedule.

"Fired up!" a crowd of Democrats chanted outside a library in a predominantly black Tampa neighborhood on a cloudy and blustery morning as people waited more than an hour to enter the library to vote. "Four more years!"

"I'm just so glad to see so many people here," said Carolyn Williams, 64, a Democrat and retired nurse, surveying more than 200 people in line at C. Blythe Andrews Jr. library, where the line began to form in the pre-dawn darkness.

At the Pinellas County elections center in Largo, behind a sign reading "Donuts for Democracy," state Rep. Larry Ahern, R-St. Petersburg, greeted a trickle of morning voters with coffee and Krispy Kreme pastries. Volunteers in bright green shirts handed out fliers asking voters to reject Amendment 3, a proposed state revenue cap, and a gray-haired woman struggled to hold her "Moms for Mitt" sign steady in a stiff breeze.

Gina Goforth, 24, and Kelly Nimmo, 24, young Republicans from Dunedin, waited just a few minutes to cast their votes for Romney.

"I don't think our current president did anything in the last four years to deserve re-election," said Nimmo, a computer programmer.

Both women said they were more motivated to vote this year because of how close Obama and Romney are in the polls. They said they cared more about the presidential election than anything else on the ballot, and skipped all 11 proposed constitutional amendments because they didn't feel well-informed enough.

At every voting site, voters expressed frustration with the length of the ballot, which made the wait to vote longer.

"It was a little crazy," said Valerie Reed, a homemaker from Carrollwood, who said she skipped merit retention elections involving three justices of the Florida Supreme Court. "I didn't know what to do with that. I didn't fill it in."

Four years ago, an avalanche of early voters, coupled with then-Gov. Charlie Crist's decision to extend early voting by three days, was viewed as crucial to Obama's Florida victory. But some voters Saturday said the economy has forced them to change their minds.

Don Dull, 61, a Clearwater Republican, said he voted for Obama four years ago, but not this time. "I think I did the wrong thing, in my heart," said Dull, a fraud investigator for a private company. "Everything seems to be headed in the wrong way."

Democrat Howard Johnson, 85, a World War II veteran, waited more than an hour to cast his ballot for Obama outside a Tampa library. "I'm here for one reason: Obama," Johnson said. "It's well worth the wait. I think he's done a splendid job."

Leanne Walker, 59, a Democrat from Clearwater, cast her vote for Obama just after 8 a.m. She said she voted against every proposed amendment but felt particularly passionate about the proposal to enshrine a ban on publicly funded abortions in the state Constitution.

"Amendment 6 on women's rights," Walker said, shaking her head. "No. No. No."

As in Largo, the lines at Pinellas' other two voting locales — St. Petersburg and Clearwater — were steady but manageable for most of the day. The wait times at all three locations seldom exceeded 30 minutes in a county where elections officials aggressively promote voting by mail instead.

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said most voters were patient and understanding, but he heard complaints about the length of the ballot and the lack of more early voting sites. The Legislature allows early voting only at elections offices and libraries.

Last year, lawmakers compressed the early voting schedule and cut the number of days from 14 to eight, but allowed a maximum of 96 hours, the same as before, but as few as 48 hours.

Hernando, the state's largest county with the shortest early voting period (62 hours) reported wait times of up to 90 minutes Saturday at an early voting site in Spring Hill.

Elizabeth Townsend, director of operations for the county elections office, said the turnout of voters at the main elections office in Brooksville was a single-day record.

"There were people in line at 8 a.m. when we didn't even open until 8:30 a.m.," Townsend said. "It's usually crickets here at the main office."

Early voting in all of Florida's urban counties will continue from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Nov. 3. By law, any voter still standing in line when polls close at 7 p.m. must be allowed to vote.

"It's all up to the voters now," said Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, as he held a campaign sign above his head at a branch library. "I don't think anybody is sitting this election out."

Miami Herald staff writer Christina Veiga and Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.