Voters see long lines, small bugs, no chaos

Expecting the worst, Hillsborough residents and officials encounter a mostly orderly process, devoid of 2000's issues.

Published November 3, 2004

TAMPA - Voters who showed up at Hillsborough County polls on Election Day encountered problems, but nothing earth-shattering. A couple precincts opened a few minutes late, some voter card activation machines malfunctioned briefly, lines were long but moved briskly.

The 2000 nightmare seemed a distant memory.

For months, people of all political leanings had fretted about potential problems and lined up attorneys, volunteers and party representatives.

But when Tuesday finally came, the doomsday predictions of chaos and confusion turned out to be much ado about nothing.

The lines were long - 100-deep or more at times. But the voters were orderly and patient. "I thought it was going to be lines out in the road and mass confusion," said James Southers, 43, a Seminole Heights resident who voted Tuesday morning at the Cathedral of Faith Church on 30th Street.

"But it turned out to be pretty good, much better than last time."

* * *

Most voters who showed up in person Tuesday left happy. For absentee voters in Hillsborough County, it was a different story.

By Tuesday afternoon, the county's three-man Canvassing Board had thrown out hundreds of absentee ballots, mostly because of signature discrepancies. Many of those who cast the disqualified absentee ballots never knew; and since the Canvassing Board's decision is considered final, no elections officials let them know.

Former Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd's daughter was one whose absentee ballot was tossed out because her signature didn't match the one on file - one she had signed at age 18. Melane Anne Byrd, 24, is a Navy pilot based in Mississippi.

"I guess it's okay for her to go in harm's way but not be able to vote," an unhappy Byrd said Tuesday.

* * *

Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson said he hated to see anyone's vote not count, but he beamed most of the day as his staff handled an estimated 80 percent turnout. "I don't see where we've missed a beat," said Johnson. "It's all been routine problems."

The "big green board" in Johnson's command center - a 6- by 8-foot projection of Hillsborough's 359 numbered precincts - glowed green all day, meaning everything was running properly.

Johnson credited Tuesday's success in part to a huge turnout of early voters during the last two weeks, as well as an equally large return of absentee ballots. A total of 86,617 residents voted early, some waiting as long as six hours to do so before Tuesday. Another 63,000 absentee ballots were returned.

In short, about one of every four of Hillsborough's 627,797 voters cast ballots before Tuesday.

* * *

Some University of Tampa students who had registered on campus showed up the Bethel Baptist Church polling site on N Jefferson Street Tuesday and found they were not on the voter rolls. The students had to insist on their right to cast provisional ballots in the face of resistance from poll workers, said Erik Winkler, president of the University of Tampa College Democrats.

"We had to raise hell to get it," Winkler said.

* * *

Meanwhile, Hillsborough's Canvassing Board Tuesday afternoon was busy disqualifying 100 more ballots, bringing to 709 the total thrown out by board members County Judge James V. Dominguez and County Commissioners Jim Norman and Thomas Scott.

Huddled over a folding table, the three examined ballot signatures with little concern for solemnity, tossing out ballot after ballot with wisecracks and belly-laughs as elections workers, poll watchers and a St. Petersburg Times reporter looked on.

"You cannot tell me that that is the same person," Dominguez said as he compared the signature on an absentee with the latest signature on the voter's registration. "No way."

"It's hieroglyphics 101," the judge said as the board threw out yet another ballot.

Norman and Scott laughed, then joked about Scott's appearance at a Jimmy Buffett fundraiser the night before.

But Robert Draper, 33, a billing company supervisor, was not amused about his absentee ballot being rejected. "My blood pressure is up because of this," he said. Draper, a Republican, heard from the Bush-Cheney campaign that his ballot had been thrown out. He complained to elections officials Tuesday. One finally asked Norman what to tell Draper. Norman said, "It's Buddy Johnson's problem."

* * *

Despite early voting, the polls remained crowded throughout the day.

At 7 a.m., 172 people stood in line outside Peninsular Christian Church on W Ballast Point Boulevard, waiting for the doors to swing open. They came driving electric wheelchairs and pushing baby strollers. Many were dressed for work.

The first person in line arrived at 5:30 a.m. Once the doors opened at 7 a.m., the line moved quickly.

The same story played out around the county.

More than an hour before polls opened at the 78th Street Library in Progress Village, a dozen voters were already in line, coffee and unread Cosmopolitan magazines in hand. By 6:15 a.m., the line had tripled.

* * *

Lisa Charles thought if she waited until 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, the lines at the University Area Community Center would be short. How wrong she was.

"Holy cow," the 30-year-old woman said as she walked inside the N 22 Street facility. She saw long lines. Many of them.

It wasn't this way four years ago, Charles said. But a lot has changed since then. Charles said she saw her medical premium increase $50 in one year, and she knows others have felt a similar squeeze.

"They're trying to make a better future," she said. "I know I am."

* * *

Tuesday evening outside the West Tampa Convention Center off Columbus Drive, dozens of supporters (including one in a grass hula skirt) stood on the sidewalk, waving signs and shouting until the last minute. Passing drivers honked and waved.

A line about 100 people long stretched from the precinct doors, around the building.

Seconds before 7 p.m., Gladys Montana and her husband, Rene Rodriguez, both 37, raced to the end of the line with their sons, 14-year-old Anthony and 3-year-old A.J.

They slipped in without a second to spare. A poll worker closed the line behind them.

"We were driving so fast, I didn't know if we were going to make it," Montana said.

She is from Columbia; her husband is from Mexico. But they are American citizens now, voting in only their second election.

* * *

Near the University of South Florida, two 18-year-olds hoping to vote for the first time battled rush hour traffic to reach precinct 347.

Jesse Carter left his job in Clearwater around 6 p.m. to pick up Hector Melendez at Gaither High School in Lutz. It didn't help that they had trouble finding the Copeland Park site.

They arrived moments too late. "We were so excited," Melendez said. "That's all we were thinking about in school."

They got in the car and drove away, disappointed.

Times staff writers Jay Cridlin, Sherri Day, Josh Zimmer, Rodney Thrash, Bill Varian, Christopher Goffard, Saundra Amrhein and Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler contributed to this report.