In trial run, early voters learn that long ballots mean long waits

A warning to Florida voters: pack plenty of patience at the polls.

In what amounted to a dry-run for early voting and Election Day, President Obama’s campaign encouraged supporters Wednesday to cast mail-in ballots in person at elections offices throughout Florida where voters said people need to do their homework and to be prepared for a long stay because of lengthy ballots.

It took some voters an hour to cast their ballots Wednesday morning in Miami-Dade.

Many more Floridians — 76,000 and counting — are voting from the comfort of their own home by mailing in absentee ballots. Republicans hold a small edge.

Democrats have historically waited until the start of in-person early voting before they cast their ballots.

But the GOP-controlled Legislature shortened the number of in-person early-voting hours compared to 2008. It also lengthened the ballot with 11 proposed constitutional amendments printed in full for the first time ever.

"There had to be some type of intention to discourage people from voting,” said Stephen Wayner, a 67-year-old Democrat from Miami, who cast his absentee ballot Wednesday.

On Wednesday, many of the 30 people who showed up to vote early with Wayner shared the belief that Republicans want to suppress the vote — a concept dismissed as groundless by Rep. Richard Corcoran, a Tampa Bay-area Republican from Trinity who helped sponsor the legislation that called for full-length constitutional amendments on the ballot.

Corcoran said people should take their ire out on the “liberal Florida Supreme Court,” which repeatedly struck down the Legislature’s proposed constitutional amendments over the years on the grounds that the initiatives’ ballot summaries were misleading or needed “clear and unambiguous” language.

“They created this concept out of whole cloth, it’s not in the Constitution,” Corcoran said. “So what we did is we said ‘fine, if this is the unfortunate game you want to play, we will make it clear and unambiguous.’ Now people know exactly what they’re voting for. And that’s a wonderful thing.”

Corcoran suggested that people who don’t like the longer ballots vote “no” on whether to retain three justices who happen to be up for merit retention this year.

How many voters will get that far into the ballot is an open question.

The ballot runs 12 pages for voters in some areas, like North Bay Village, which has 21 municipal questions in addition to the constitutional amendments, which concern everything from senior tax breaks to the separation of church and state.

Miami-Dade also prints ballots in three languages: English, Spanish and Creole.

Each ballot takes about 70 seconds to print — adding a 35-minute wait to the last person in the 30-voter queue at the Miami-Dade elections headquarters in Doral on Wednesday. Some voters took more than 30 minutes to get through their ballot.

Once early voting begins officially, on Saturday, Oct. 27, the Doral office intends to have two printers and more booths available to voters.

“We want what’s most-convenient for the voters,” said Christina White, deputy elections supervisor in Miami-Dade. “We’re urging people to early vote when early voting begins or to fill out their absentee ballots at home and mail them in.”

Wednesday’s Obama campaign event comes in the final stretch of the campaign, where the candidates and their wives are stumping in Florida weekly. On Thursday, the president is scheduled to give a speech at the University of Miami before heading to a downtown Miami fundraiser with actress Eva Longoria, his campaign’s national co-chair.

Democrats made absentee-ballot voting a higher priority this election after Republican legislators, in 2011, shortened the days of early voting from a maximum of 14 to a maximum of eight.

In addition to cutting back on the early-voting days, the Legislature eliminated early voting on the Sunday before Election Day.

“Many African-Americans would go and vote on that day after going to church,” said Marie Zaret, a 66 year-old Democrat from Hialeah. “I think this was done to keep them from voting.”

Republicans say the early voting changes, part of the law that included the language concerning constitutional amendments, was designed to give county elections officials more flexibility. Democrats say it’s simply voter suppression.

Though the total number of early-voting hours is the same under law — 96 — it’s actually fewer hours than were available in 2008. The total early voting hours reached 120 then because Gov. Charlie Crist issued an executive order requiring the polls to stay open for an extra four hours daily to accommodate all of the early voting, much of which broke for Obama, who won must-win Florida and therefore the White House.

“You’re seeing the Democrats make a push for more absentee ballot voting because they have to,” said Brett Doster, a Florida advisor to Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign. “We’re confident, that, by Election Day, we’ll have a comfortable lead with absentee ballot votes.”

Democrats are leading slightly in the crucial I-4 corridor counties of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Orange counties. They have smaller leads in the Democrat-heavy counties of Broward and Miami-Dade.

Republicans are dominating in North Florida, rolling up comfortable leads in Santa Rosa, Escambia, Okaloosa and Duval counties.

For its part, the Obama campaign says it’s sure that it will narrow the absentee-ballot gap and will dominate on early voting days. It points to a massive volunteer army that has registered hundreds of thousands of new voters — 113,202, and counting, in the last 15 days before voter registration was closed.

By Election Day, Democrats will hold at least a 5 percentage-point edge over Republicans in registered voters.

To beat the expected crowd, Miami Democrats like Wayner showed up at 11:15 a.m., waited in line and was out of the Doral-based elections office by 12:20 p.m. Wednesday.

"This was pretty easy and I know my vote counted,” Wayner. “That’s why I showed up and did this now."