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Election 2004

Counties brace for early voting rush

Officials have added polling sites and workers throughout the bay area in anticipation of higher turnout between today and Election Day.

By ALISA ULFERTS
Published October 18, 2004

In Hillsborough County, Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson has added several libraries to the list of polling sites for early voting that starts today.

In Pasco County, Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning has hired an additional 25 poll workers to run the early voting sites so his staff can continue preparing for Nov. 2.

And in Pinellas, Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark expects to at least match the 50,000 voters who cast ballots early in the 2002 gubernatorial election.

Today kicks off the state's first experience with unrestricted early voting in a presidential election. Tens of thousands of voters are expected to cast ballots at elections offices, libraries and other sites in the next two weeks.

The option has been available for years under Florida law but in a very limited way - mainly for voters who had a legitimate reason they could not go to the polls on Election Day. The Legislature loosened the restrictions in 2001.

"We've found it to be very popular," Johnson said. He expects more than 36,000 Hillsborough residents to vote in the next two weeks, triple the number who voted early in this year's primary.

Registered voters must bring a photo and signature ID - usually a driver's license - to any of the sites during the hours elections officials have set for early voting. All counties must offer at least two weekend days for early voting.

"It gives people more options," said Clark, who spent several hours Friday along with elections officials from Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties taking calls from voters.

She said most of the questions dealt with early voting issues, such as where to go and eligibility.

The changes have prompted candidates and political parties to push harder to get out voters earlier. Presidential candidate John Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, toured the state Sunday to encourage people to vote, and Kerry will visit Tampa today.

President Bush was in South Florida on Saturday and is expected to spend tonight on St. Pete Beach before rallies Tuesday in St. Petersburg and Pasco County.

The Bush campaign has county-by-county goals for getting supporters to vote early. GOP leaders such as Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher and Attorney General Charlie Crist also plan news conferences to encourage Republicans to vote before Nov. 2.

Democratic college students planned to camp overnight at the University of Tampa and on other campuses before marching to election offices to be the first in line today. Members of the state's congressional black caucus are visiting five cities over four days to promote early voting.

Democrats say early voting provides more opportunities to get more of their supporters to vote than a single election day. Those supporters include lower income residents who might face transportation or child care problems that could prevent them from voting on a particular day.

"Low-wage workers are the ones who need the most flexibility because they often have two or three jobs," said Brian Kettenring, head organizer of Florida ACORN, a low-income family advocacy group that is pushing a constitutional amendment to increase the minimum wage in Florida.

Kettenring said early voting will give the issue an additional edge because it makes it easier for those most affected by the amendment to vote.

But convenience comes at a price for candidate and elections official alike. Early voting can increase costs for election officials and candidates. It complicates the difficult jobs of campaigning and of running an election.

In Hillsborough, a deluge of new registrations - more than 20,000 in all - flooded into Johnson's office at the close of registration on Oct. 4. The elections staff and a score of temporary workers worked throughout the weekend to process all the new registrations by the start of early voting.

If new voters attempt to vote early and their registrations have not been entered into elections computers, Johnson has instructed his staff to search through stacks of envelopes at the downtown elections office to try to locate the unprocessed registration.

As a last resort, Johnson said a voter whose registration cannot be located would be offered the opportunity to file a provisional ballot. Elections officials must investigate data on any provisional ballot before it is certified.

In Pinellas, where the number of registered voters has increased by about 2 percent from 2000, all of the new voter registration applications have been processed.

Hillsborough has 11 early voting sites, Pinellas and Orange counties have nine and Palm Beach County has eight.

But some counties have not been as aggressive in encouraging early voting. Duval County plans only one early voting site, at a downtown elections office that is inconvenient for many black voters who have been encouraged to vote early.

"I cannot forget what happened in Florida in the 2000 election," said U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. "We are telling people to get out on the 18th and vote early, make it a family affair. Vote early, so if you have a problem, we can correct it."

Secretary of State Glenda Hood has asked state elections officials to discuss with Jacksonville officials how to add early voting sites.

"I have concerns that there is only one voting location set up in Duval County," Hood said in a statement.

But making it easier for voters can make it harder for candidates. Candidates must start their campaigns sooner, before early voters have cast their ballots, meaning more money must be raised. Then comes the task of finding out which people voted early so you don't waste money appealing to them in the final days.

"Early voting changes the dynamics of campaigning," said Pasco's Browning.

Candidates and parties can check in with elections officials each day of early voting to see how many Republicans and Democrats voted that day and adjust their strategy.

"Some people may have already cast a ballot by the time they get a political flier in the mail," Browning said. "Some of the last-minute surprises may have to be rethought."

-- Times staff writers Aaron Sharockman and Jeff Testerman contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 18, 2004, 02:10:34]


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