Confusion arises in Florida’s early voting

WASHINGTON — The election is still two days away, but in the always-strange state of Florida, early voting is already leading to confusion and chaos.

In Miami-Dade County, elections officials reopened a voting office on Sunday only to shut the operation down in the early afternoon because too many people were waiting in line. After angry voters started chanting “Let us vote,” the election workers decided to reopen, calling in extra staff and another printer for the absentee ballots. Everyone in line at 5 p.m., the original deadline, would be allowed to vote, an official told the Miami Herald.

A bomb scare shut down one polling place in Orlando on Saturday; there too, voters were lining up for an extra day of early voting that was ordered by a state judge.

Saturday was scheduled to be the final day of early voting in the nation’s biggest swing state, where most polls have shown the presidential race extraordinarily close. In many places, particularly in South Florida, where Democrats typically get their largest majorities, lines at polling places stretched for hours, with voters in some places waiting past midnight.

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In Miami-Dade, the ballots are 12 pages long, thick with constitutional amendments and local questions; the lines there were as long as six hours on Saturday.

Worried that significant numbers of their voters might have been deterred by the wait, the Florida Democratic Party went to court in the wee hours of Sunday morning seeking an emergency order for polling places to remain open Sunday. The suit cited “extraordinarily long lines” that it blamed on “inadequate polling facilities” in South Florida’s three big urban counties, Miami-Dade, Broward (Ft. Lauderdale) and Palm Beach.

The state Legislature, which has a Republican majority, passed a law last year that reduced the number of early voting days from 14 to eight and eliminated early voting on the Sunday before the election. In 2008, Democrats voted heavily on that day. Many African American churches organized congregants to go directly from services to the polls. On Thursday, Republican Gov. Rick Scott refused a request from Democratic officials to extend voting hours this year.

But the law includes a loophole that election officials in several counties are taking advantage of: Election offices are allowed to be open for voters to drop off absentee ballots. On Sunday morning, officials in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties announced that in addition to accepting absentee ballots, their main election offices would be open all day to print out absentee ballots for voters who had not already requested them. Voters would be given ballots as long as they were in line by 5 p.m., the two counties said.

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The move effectively turned the absentee ballot provision into something similar to an additional day of early voting, although absentee ballots are handled differently from the usual in-person early votes. “Rather than require legal action, our office is taking a proactive position,” Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher said in a statement.

In Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, the election offices also were open Sunday so voters could pick up mail ballots. Early voting was due to continue in some of the counties on Monday.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Democratic Party, Brannon Jordan, said the party was “very happy with the response” but was continuing to work on extending hours in Broward County. “These long lines have been denying people the opportunity to cast a ballot,” she said.

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