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More complaints as Florida early voting turnout remains heavy

Associated Press Writer   30 October 2004
On the final weekend of early voting, Floridians streamed into polling places Saturday while elections officials tried to resolve last-minute problems ranging from undelivered or delayed absentee ballots to allegations of fraud.

Turnout was heavy across the state, just as it has been since early voting began Oct. 18, and polling places were packed Saturday. Broward County citizens waited nearly 4 hours, Seminole County voters waited up to 2 1/2 hours, and the midday line at a Hillsborough County library was 266 deep.

"It's encouraging to have this opportunity to come out and vote early," said Tiffany Young, 32, of Tampa. "This is encouraging a lot more people to come out to vote."

At Lauderhill Mall in Broward County, Patti Bryant voted at 1:25 p.m. - 3 hours, 55 minutes after she got in line.

"We have to make a change. This election is key," said Bryant, a librarian. "It's too important for people not to vote, so I was prepared to wait for however long it took."

So far, more than 1.8 million of the 10.3 million Floridians registered to vote have cast ballots, either early or absentee, and the number was expected to rise to 2 million by the time polls open Tuesday.

But many voters are complaining their voices are being silenced.

In South Florida, a civil rights organization has been sued for allegedly neglecting to turn in voter registration forms collected from citizens during a petition drive.

The lawsuit, filed Friday, accuses the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now of using the registrations as a subterfuge during a successful push to get a minimum-wage amendment on the ballot.

The Fort Lauderdale attorneys filing the suit said a former ACORN worker gave them a box containing 179 registration forms, collected in the summer, that had been lost in the organization's Miami office.

"These are first-time voters from the underclass" who were cheated, said William Scherer Jr., a Republican operative and lawyer who filed the case with attorney Stuart Rosenfeldt. He said the 11 South Florida residents represented in the suit are a mixed group politically, and all but one is black.

ACORN organizer Brian Kettenring said the suit is politically motivated. The former worker is an ex-felon accused of stealing $5,000 from the organization, Kettenring said, and Scherer is closely tied with the GOP.

"The Republicans have seized on this criminal character and are getting in bed with him to take a shot at us," Kettenring said.

Meanwhile in southwest Florida, Lee County elections officials were besieged by complaints from hundreds of voters who hadn't received absentee ballots mostly requested through political parties and other organizations.

Elections Supervisor Sharon Harrington said her office didn't know exactly how many ballots had been sent out in response to the requests.

The problem is similar to one striking Broward County's elections office.

Saturday, postal officials said 2,467 absentee ballots from Broward County were ped off at a processing center Saturday afternoon, and none will be delivered before Monday - leaving residents little time to complete ballots and get them back in the mail.

Gerry McKiernan, the manager of media relations for the U.S. Postal Service, said a Broward County Board of Elections vehicle ped off the ballots at 1:50 p.m. Saturday - long after carriers hit the streets.

McKiernan said one of the ballots was to be sent to Las Vegas and another to Orlando; odds are, there is not enough time for those to be shipped, filled out and returned to Broward's election office by 7 p.m. Tuesday.

"We're doing the best we can," McKiernan said Saturday. "We'll process the stuff tonight so it can get delivered on Monday morning. If somebody can get it turned around real quickly, there is a reasonable chance we'll get it back to the board of elections by 7 on Tuesday night."

Gisela Salas, a spokeswoman for the Broward elections office, did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment.

Harrington said she hopes the Florida Legislature takes a look at absentee balloting after the election, with an eye toward tightening control over third-party groups that try to induce voters to mail them requests for absentee ballots. She complained her office was overwhelmed by requests turned in at the last minute.

"I'd like to see more guidelines," Harrington said. "It would be better if they could give us a little bit more of a heads-up."

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