Florida Election Workers Try to Keep Pace

The receptionists at the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections office call this time of year "bizarre" season, when the phone lines are lit up like a Christmas tree a whole month before December.

It's a time when the door chimes announce a new visitor to the small lobby at least once every minute. It's a time when voters of every stripe, with every sort of problem, crowd and clamor to clear up all kinds of confusion with their one vote.

On Tuesday afternoon, almost midway through the last week of early voting in Florida, the Alachua office was inundated by calls and questions from hundreds of prospective voters -- just like most other elections offices throughout the state. Many staff members are working weekends and overtime, and the hours are only getting longer. Earlier in the day, Gov. Charlie Crist had signed an executive order extending early voting hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Friday, and for an additional 12 hours over the weekend.

Record Registrations

The reason: the state has seen historic numbers of new voter registrations, voters are turning out in record numbers and lines in some counties, like Miami-Dade, have wrapped around polling places and take hours to make it all the way through. As of Tuesday evening, 162,456 voters had turned out.

And it's not even Election Day yet.

Pam Carpenter, Alachua County's supervisor of elections, says it's all part of the job, to make sure people get their votes counted, and chaos kept in check. On Tuesday, she was making calls and holding meetings to ensure there would be enough volunteers to handle the governor's mandate.

Adding Staff

"We've had to staff up," Carpenter said. "We're seeing about 3,000 to 4,000 voters a day."

For a county with about 146,000 registered voters and an expected turnout of more than 80 percent, the pace has been brisk. So far, nearly 50,000 votes have already been cast.

In south Florida, where memories of hanging chads and hand recounts still linger from the 2000 presidential election, voting officials and campaigns alike are urging voters to cast their ballots well ahead of the Nov. 4 election day with a bit more urgency.

"This is a presidential election with an expected 80 to 85 percent turnout. You should be expecting some lines," warned Christina White, a spokesperson for the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Office. "Vote early, or vote absentee if you can."

Challenging Task

As of Tuesday evening, 162,456 votes had been cast in Miami-Dade.

And observers are already predicting a frenetic election day.

"Many of the counties in Florida are being overwhelmed from what I can see," said University of Florida political science professor Paul Ortiz, who studies presidential elections. "Twelve months ago it was hard to imagine there would be this much early voting. There's clearly a challenge here."

Tough to Prepare

Ortiz said voter participation declined in the 20th Century from its highs after the Civil War. He said typical voter turnout in the U.S. over the past century has hovered around 50 to 60 percent -- at the high end.

"A county that's facing 85 percent turnout is historically not prepared," Ortiz said. "To put things into perspective, we haven't had that turnout since the period of reconstruction. That's a tremendous upsurge in voting."

The last time voter turnout rates crested 80 percent was during the period between 1876 and 1896.

Historic Moment

And with this election seen as some as a major moment in American history, some voters, especially those who have never voted for a president before, are hesitant to cast their ballots on any day other than Election Day.

University of Florida junior Ashley Osterer, 20, was one of these who wanted to savor the moment -- until she realized she'd never find the time to vote unless she got it out of the way early.

"I really wanted to vote on Election Day because early voting is kind of anticlimactic," Osterer said. "But it would be sad if the first time I'm eligible to vote I end up not being able to."

Casting a Vote

With a big project due, and a friend's birthday party to think about, the psychology major visited the early voting location in downtown Gainesville after class, just a block away from the bustling supervisor of elections office.

The 10-minute wait was worth it. She voted early, and still managed to capture some of the magic of the first time.

"I saved my presidential vote for the last one," Osterer said.