Florida primary turnout may set record
BY GARY FINEOUT
Nearly one million Floridians have already cast early and absentee ballots in the state's primary, a sign that moving up the date of the presidential primary will likely yield a record turnout on Tuesday.
The last time there was a contested presidential primary on both the Republican and Democratic sides, only about 19 percent of Florida voters, or 1.34 million, cast ballots. But numbers assembled by the political parties show that more than 988,000 people had voted by Sunday.
And thousands more voted Sunday afternoon in the seven Florida counties, including Miami-Dade and Broward, that were still conducting early voting. Lines at some early voting sites in South Florida snaked around buildings and stretched out onto sidewalks.
The boost in voters, a stark contrast from the 2000 presidential primary, coincides with the decision by the Florida Legislature to move up the primary date from March to Jan. 29 as well as highly competitive races in both parties.
''I think the Legislature's decision to move Florida's primary earlier in the process has been vindicated by the overwhelming voter participation that we have already seen,'' said Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican and sponsor of the bill to change the primary date. "Florida is finally relevant in the presidential nominating process and voters are responding to that newfound relevance.''
Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor Lester Sola said that, between early voting and absentee ballots, turnout has already matched the entire 2000 primary turnout. Nearly 10,000 people voted on Sunday afternoon and he said that points to plenty of voters showing up on Tuesday.
"We're expecting a busy day,'' Sola said.
There are 10.2 million registered voters in Florida. Of those who had already voted by Sunday, nearly 474,000 are registered Republicans and 405,000 are Democrats. An additional 109,000 voters -- who are either registered with other parties or are independents -- have also voted on the property-tax amendment on the ballot.
PUSHING FOR VOTES
The Republican edge isn't surprising, given that GOP candidates have descended on the state with bus trips, television ads and coast-to-coast campaigning. But the Democratic turnout has been boosted by an absentee-ballot effort by the Florida Democratic Party and by unions supporting Hillary Clinton that sent mailers to members urging that they vote.
The Democratic National Committee stripped Florida of its 210 delegates for moving up the primary date, but that hasn't sapped voter enthusiasm.
In Miami Beach, Patricia Jungman, 49, and her 21-year-old son, Andrew, both showed up on Sunday to vote in the Democratic primary. Patricia voted for Clinton. Andrew said he supports Barack Obama but cast his vote for John Edwards to "keep him in the race.''
''The more options we have, the more they'll compete,'' he said. "When it's only Barack and Hillary, they're going at it. It's like a slugfest. Then you have Edwards in the back keeping peace.''
At Southwest Regional Library in Pembroke Pines, a line snaked from inside the sprawling building onto the parking lot midafternoon. Mitt Romney yard signs dotted the grass and droves of voters spent long minutes looking for parking in the crowded lot.
The scene at the Davie/Cooper City Branch Library was less intense, but voters who work weekdays came out to beat Tuesday's crush. Voters and sign holders parked on the grass.
SWITCH BACK TO PAPER
This year's election will not only go down in the history books for its record turnout -- it will also mark the last time touchscreen voting machines will be used by most voters in a major statewide election. This fall, only disabled voters will be using touchscreen machines.
Fourteen counties -- including Miami-Dade and Broward -- will use the ATM-style machines on Tuesday, then switch to optical-scan machines that use paper ballots.
Later this year, the state will take possession of nearly 28,000 touchscreen machines -- including nearly 10,000 now used in Broward and Miami-Dade.
While problems with touchscreen machines were reported earlier this month in South Carolina, Florida election supervisors reported only minor problems.
Secretary of State Kurt Browning said there wasn't enough time to have counties switch from touchscreen machines to optical scan in time for Tuesday's primary, but added he remained confident that Florida's election should go smoothly.
Miami Herald staff writers Rich Bard, Natalie P. McNeal and Jonnelle Marte contributed to this report.