Long lines, a few glitches mark start of early voting in South Florida
Miami Herald. October 20,2008. by MICHAEL VASQUEZ, CHARLES RABIN, BREANNE GILPATRICK AND ADAM H. BEASLEY
The 2008 election officially began at dawn Monday with long lines, singing union members and a handful of hiccups.
From Coral Gables to Aventura, South Beach to Fort Lauderdale, some polling places had the feel of Election Day.
The line stretched to 100 at the Southwest Regional Library in Pembroke Pines with some voters lining up two hours early for what they called the most important election in a generation. In North Miami, the lines stretched around the block at the polling place at Northeast Second Avenue and 132nd Street.
At the African-American Research Library in Fort Lauderdale, poll workers were handing out numbers to keep track of the voters standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the library's lobby.
In reality, it was just the first of 14 early voting dates scheduled before the general election on Nov. 4, but that didn't stop hundreds from lining up around Miami-Dade County, even before the polls opened at 7 a.m.
The queues, and some technical problems, made voting a slow slog, with people waiting in line anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
"I expected it to be much faster," West Kendall resident Esperanza Acosta said. ``Election Day is going to be a big mess if people don't vote early."
Lines at Miami Beach City Hall Monday morning were the picture of unhappiness. News traveled fast among the 20 or so voters waiting at 7 a.m. that technical problems were slowing down voting. Some of the computers used to check in voters weren't working, though there were no problems with the optical scan machines used to count ballots.
"This is a typical Florida election," grumbled voter Mike Frank, wearing a black-and-white "Barack is my homeboy" T-shirt.
About 40 minutes later, a poll worker told reporters everything was "fine" but referred further comment to the elections department. Miami Beach voter Danny Reynolds, who arrived at 7 a.m. on the dot, was still in line and piping mad.
"I think it's ridiculous," Reynolds said. ``They've had plenty of time to prepare for this, and they should have worked on those machines and made sure they were working yesterday."
Elections department spokeswoman Christina White said two of the location's four check-in computers "were down for maybe a total of 10 minutes" when the polls opened.
"We're looking into why," she said.
Later, voting at Miami City Hall meant a walk to the back of the building, standing outside in line with about 100 people, then a wait of well over an hour.
A large blue umbrella covered about a dozen people on the top of the steps. Poll workers handed out water bottles, and chairs were offered to older folks waiting in the heat.
Still, the mood was upbeat.
Early in the day a bus covered with McCain signs and carrying voters drove along a delivery entrance to the voting line, but was turned back as voters disembarked.
Realtor, Grove Isle resident and Obama supporter Hank Klein waited in the crowd before noon.
"I expected a line, but I didn't expect it to be this long," said Klein, impressed with the courtesy of the poll workers.
Not to be outdone, 69-year-old Nancy Delgado was voting for McCain. The Cuba-born American just couldn't overcome Obama's plan to ``spread the wealth."
"I come from a country that suffers so much," said Delgado. ``Spread the wealth. That's coming from my country. I heard that when I was 19."
Sheila Delemos took time out from work to vote and was upset over the length of time it took, and the McCain bus that had visited earlier.
She said it took her almost two hours to cast her ballot.
"I wanted to vote. I wasn't going to be deterred," she said.
In most places, the slowdown was due to a steady turnout.
Voters stood in line for about an hour Monday morning at the 75th and Collins branch library on Miami Beach to vote, thanks to a glitch that for the first two hours or so had only one machine reading ballots.
By 10 a.m., two machines were working for a steady stream of early voters who stretched out the door numbering about 50 at a time.
One voter confided to another that he had ped his wife at Publix and hoped to vote before it was time to pick her up. Poll workers handed out bottled water with trademark Miami-Dade "I Voted Today!" stickers.
At the Coral Gables library, Lance Cpl. Joseph Steele stood in a line of 125 people at 11 a.m., when the estimated wait time was 45 minutes.
Monday was the Marine's last chance to vote at a booth he returns from his two-week leave Tuesday. Steele said he wasn't sure if he was still registered until Monday morning, when it was confirmed by county officials. It was good news to Steele, who can now vote for his candidate of choice: Sen. John McCain.
"For me, he's the only one that has military experience. I believe that he's the best candidate for the defense of our country. We need someone who has experience," he said.
David and Susan Hays of Coral Gables also were in the crowd.
"I would wait 10 hours to vote for Obama," Susan said. ``I want to get it done with so I can work on his campaign."
Carol Brooks, also from Coral Gables, said: ``People who are voting for Obama realize this is a pivotal moment in American history."
The sun hadn't fully risen in the sky when Blanche Norwood, 57, made her way to a voting booth in the lobby of Miami-Dade County Hall.
Only 13 others had voted ahead of Norwood, who works at Treasure Isle Nursing Center in North Bay Village.
"It's very important to me to get my ballot cast," said Norwood, an avid Obama supporter who questioned where her ballot was being taken after she entered it into the machine. ``They said they're locking it in a bin and at the end of the day they get a police escort to the elections department."
Norwood said she was told by a poll worker that she couldn't vote wearing an Obama T-shirt. She said she was told she'd either have to take it off or turn it inside out. But that was quickly cleared up by site clerk Javier Gonzalez, who said voters are permitted to wear what they wish.
By 7:30 a.m., the line at County Hall was about two dozen deep. Eight at a time were permitted to pick up their ballots, which took about a minute each. Then voters were off to the 39 voting booths and the 12 scanners. There were also five Ivotronic machines for folks with disabilities.
Out front of County Hall a small group was milling around holding signs for and against many of the ballot questions. For the most part, though, it was business as usual at County Hall.
The Service Employees International Union had representatives helping a few people to the polls, and WMBM-1490 AM set up shop about 100 feet from the polls, awaiting Bishop Victor Curry, who was set to do a radio show.
Kim Diehl, 33, a communications worker with SEIU, had just voted.
"We voted early because we want to be the first in line at this historic occasion," she said.
Congressional candidate Raul Martinez made a carefully orchestrated entrance at County Hall shortly before 9 a.m., surrounded by about a dozen singing SEIU members.
The group had just finished having breakfast at the University of Miami, then hopped on a train to County Hall and descended the escalator to the front entrance.
Martinez, smiling and waiving to friends, said it's important to vote early.
"We're asking everyone to vote as early as they can so they can have a smooth vote," said Martinez, who voted for Barack Obama. ``This is what's important. The ballot is very large."
The parking lot was full at the Aventura Government Center at 6:45 a.m., with the line 20 to 30 deep before the doors even opened.
Laura Mills of Aventura power-walked to the polls and was among the first to cast her vote.
"We expect to see a bigger rush than ever of people voting," Mills said. ``We want to make sure our vote counts and get out here and do it quick."
At the West Kendall Regional Library, about 30 early voters lined up before 7 a.m.
Thirty minutes later only a handful had finished voting.
One voter walked into the library and came right back out. The line was too long, so he would come back later.
Though anecdotal, these cases were early indications that the enthusiasm for this historic presidential election is as high as expected.
In all, there are 20 early polling places in Miami-Dade; Broward, with 17 early voting locations, begins casting ballots at 10 a.m.
In Broward, more than 70 people were in line by the time the polls opened at the Fort Lauderdale branch library on Sunrise Boulevard.
A few people toward the front of the line read paperback books and newspapers while they waited. Others studied their sample ballots and talked about the new voting machines and who they planned to vote for. One woman near the front of the line played a Big Bird video on her iPhone to entertain her son as she waited to vote.
By arriving at 8:30 a.m., John McLaughlin of Fort Lauderdale earned the right to be the first person to cast a ballot at the Fort Lauderdale branch. He arrived at the polls early after running into trouble with his absentee ballot.
But he said it wasn't so bad because "they gave me a chair." It also gave McLaughlin a chance to read the newspaper.
Once the polls opened at 10 a.m., it took him about 20 minutes to get through the ballot.
"It went very well, very smoothly," he said.
Paul Rizzo, 62, and Adriane Martinez McIntyre, 53, arrived at 8:50 a.m. more than an hour before the polls opened earning them a spot roughly 10 people from the front of the line.
"We wanted to make sure Obama gets in," explained Martinez McIntyre of Lauderdale Lakes.
Frank Piccolo of Fort Lauderdale arrived about 9:45 a.m. and found about 50 people in line ahead of him.
"I came this morning thinking there wasn't going to be anyone here, but this is great," Piccolo, 50, said of the turnout.
"I hope it's like this all over the country," said Jon Christiansen of Fort Lauderdale as he stood in line next to Piccolo.
About an hour after the polls opened, the line to vote at the Fort Lauderdale branch library stretched out the door, doubling back on itself to fit more voters inside the lobby.
"We've never had this kind of crowd on the first day," said Mary Cooney, spokeswoman for the Broward Supervisor of Elections.
Some voters looked at the line and left, deciding to try a different voting site or a different day.
Cooney reminded a couple of them that it's not too late to request an absentee ballot. Requests can be made until the Wednesday before the election.
Cooney said 115,000 absentee ballots have been requested so far. Voters can request absentee ballots through Oct. 29. Those ballots will be mailed no later than Oct. 31. They must be returned to the Supervisor of Elections no later than the close of voting on Nov. 4. They can be returned at any branch office until Nov. 3, but on Nov. 4 only the main office in Fort Lauderdale is open.
Along with the lines, a couple of Broward voting sites had glitches with the polling sites' "Ballot on Demand" system, which is used during early voting to print ballots for each individual voter, Cooney said.
The equipment allows the Supervisor of Elections Office to print ballots as needed for the individual precincts as voters arrive, rather than storing ballots for all of Broward's precincts at each site.
But at a couple of voting sites the equipment malfunctioned when the computer system used to look up each ballot stopped communicating with the machine used to print the ballots.
In Pompano Beach, the problem was resolved before polls opened and did not affect voting, Cooney said. And in Deerfield Beach, voting was slowed but not stopped when one machine went down.
Coney said the "Ballot on Demand" machines might also have caused a voting delay in Hallandale Beach, where voting started a little after 10:30.
Rosemary Sabino, a registered Democrat, planned to vote early in the presidential election on Monday morning, so she made her way to the Hollywood public library about 10:30 a.m., only to find a long line of other voters.
Guessing it would take her two hours to vote for her candidate, Obama, Sabino decided she would return home and come back another time.
"I was shocked at how long the line was at the library," she said. ``It's amazing. The line must have been at least two blocks long."
Determined to vote, Sabino said she plans to return at 2 p.m. or on Tuesday.
"I'm hoping what happened this morning is an anomaly," she said.
Begun in 2002, early voting in Florida is now an oft-used convenience along with a make-or-break time for many political campaigns. Yet that does not mean voters won't encounter lines, with a recent Pew Charitable Trust report suggesting the switch to optical-scan ballots may slow down early voting.
Election officials see early voting along with mail-in absentee ballots as a crucial way of reducing Election Day waits.
This is especially true this year, with hundreds of thousands of newly registered voters across South Florida. The booming voter rolls helped Broward County crack the million-voter threshold this election season. Broward now boasts 1,008,656 registered voters, with Democrats showing the biggest recent gains and holding well more than a 2-1 overall lead over Republicans.
A little before noon, supporters of Barack Obama and John McCain stood outside the Broward County Main Library, holding signs and waving at passing cars. The curbs were lined with smaller campaign signs for candidates further down the ballot. Democratic Broward Sheriff's candidate Scott Israel greeted voters and handed out fliers.
Inside, about 90 people waited to vote, standing in a line that snaked through the lobby from one end of the building to the other.
Hollywood residents Rose Apirian, Susan Gordon and Mireille Jeanopolous came early for the Hillary Clinton rally and decided to jump in line to vote at about 10:30 a.m. By 11:45, they were nearing the front of the line.
"While we were waiting for the event we decided to come inside to vote," Gordon said.
Miami-Dade, too, has seen a substantial jump in new voters. Since the beginning of this year, the voter rolls have added nearly 160,000 names, for a total of 1,243,315 voters. Overall, Democrats hold a 554,001-382,286 advantage over Republicans, with independent and minor-party voters accounting for the rest.
At Miami-Dade elections headquarters in Doral, voters struggled to find parking with many forced to park on side streets blocks from the precinct. At any given point, there were at least 20 people waiting in line to vote, as poll workers shuffled voters in and out.
"The last presidential election I waited until the last minute and had to wait two hours in line," said voter Laura Velez, 23. ``I would rather wait in line for five or 10 minutes than have to go through that again."
Velez, who initially supported Hillary Clinton's bid to be the Democratic presidential nominee, said she was debating whether or not to vote, but decided she had to.
"I wasn't going to vote, but I don't think any of us can afford not to," Velez said. ``Our taxes are too high, the economy is in shambles. One way or another, we have to vote to voice that we want some sort of change."
Miami Herald staff writers Robert Samuels, Laura Figueroa, Anders Gyllenhaal, Phil Latzman, Carol Rosenberg, Sergio Bustos, Yudy Pineiro, Jay Weaver and Jose Pagliery contributed to this report.