Voters face long lines on the first day of early voting in South Florida

Long lines. Lots of patience. Loads of enthusiasm.

The first day of in-person early voting started Saturday and — if the lines around the block and the passion of all the voters are any indication — it means that President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney have fired up their bases and are in the tightest of races in the nation’s biggest battleground state.

Even before in-person early voting began, Floridians were already voting — by absentee ballot. More than 1.2 million have been cast, and Republican-cast absentee ballots outnumbered Democrats’ by about 5 percentage points.

That GOP edge, though, will soon be wiped away by Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in the state by 536,000 voters and who typically prefer in-person early voting rather than casting absentee ballots.

Not every in-person early voter is a Democrat, though.

At the West Kendall Branch Library, where voters waited up to two hours or more to cast ballots, 39-year-old Gonzalo Rodriguez, a Republican, was eager to vote for Romney.

“I think we need something else in the office,” said Rodriguez, a second generation Cuban-American from Kendall.

Rodriguez, who voted for John McCain in 2008, also voted for Connie Mack in the U.S. Senate race. “I just like him,” he said.

A high proportion of early voters are African-American, who overwhelmingly vote as Democrats.

Ozzie Flowers, a 59-year-old from Miami, decided to participate in a hybrid early voting program pioneered by the Obama campaign called, “Vote Now!”

The campaign encouraged its supporters to request an absentee ballot but to drop it off in person at the elections office, instead of putting it in the mail or waiting for Saturday’s official start of early in-person voting when 20 sites opened in Miami-Dade County and 17 in Broward County.

“I wanted to put the ballot in the machine myself,” Flowers said at Miami City Hall. “I don’t trust the mail.”

Flowers was accompanied by fellow Democrat Tony Abreu, 37, who bore a large sign that said “Tell yo’ mama to vote for Obama.”

At the Miami polling spot, Democrat Liza Smith chanted a song: “Steal my vote. Steal my vote. Ain’t gonna let nobody steal my vote.”

Voting was so heavy that, by 3 p.m. in Miami-Dade, 14,745 people had voted — exceeding the number of first day early voters in 2008 when 12,000 cast — ballots. By day's end in Miami-Dade, 22,625 early voted in 12 hours.

The candidates are continuing to focus on Florida. On Saturday, Romney stumped across the state in Pensacola, Kissimmee and Land O’Lakes. Obama returns to the state Monday for an Orlando rally with former President Bill Clinton.

On Saturday, throughout Miami-Dade and Broward, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Bishop Victor Curry and other black pastors held rallies and reminded black voters that the GOP-led Legislature reduced early voting days — including the Sunday before Election Day voting — when African-Americans turned out in force in 2008.

They plan to rally Sunday as well for a “Souls to the Polls” series of events. Expect the lines to be long there as well. Early voting will continue until next Saturday, Nov. 3. Polls are open daily, 7 a.m.-7 p.m.

One reason lines are long: The ballot’s long and takes up to 70 seconds to print for each voter.

Printed in three languages — English, Spanish and Creole — the ballot asks voters to decide on candidates for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, both chambers of the Florida Legislature and county and city commissions. Also on the ballot, 11 constitutional amendments.

Lines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties stretched around the block in many places Saturday, with wait times ranging from 30 minutes to as long as nearly six hours, according to information posted on the counties’ department of elections websites, which is tracking the wait times.

Yves Renaud, 53, a doctor originally from Haiti who lives in the Falls, told the Miami Herald he waited nearly eight hours to vote at the Coral Reef Library.

“Even Haiti can do better than this,” said Renaud, a registered independent voter who supported Obama. He said the polls didn’t have enough people to identify and process the long line of voters.

Elections officials in both counties reported no major problems with early voting. The balmy, breezy conditions helped keep people cool.

Marissa Davis, 18, said that it took her more than 30 minutes to get through the pages-long ballot. She and her sister, Mercy, 20, arrived at the Model City Library at 6 a.m. and were among the first to vote.

It was also a first for the sisters: They had never before voted.

“We both voted for Obama,” said Davis, a student at Miami Central High School. “We need more jobs and better schools.”

Crowds were relaxed at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale, where voters waited up to three hours to cast a ballot.

Hattie Platt, 59, of Fort Lauderdale, said she arrived early to vote and waited in line about three hours. The long line didn’t bother her at all.

“The ballot is a little long,” she said. “If you were just getting your ballot today and reading it for the first time, it’s long. But if you got the sample ballot beforehand, it was easy.”

Meanwhile, absentee ballots are still pouring in. In addition to the 1.2 million cast, 1.4 million have been requested but haven’t been mailed back in or voted yet. More than 110,000 people absentee-ballot voted in Miami-Dade, where Republicans hold a 7,000-vote lead. In Broward, more than 61,000 voted and Democrats hold a 16,000 absentee-ballot lead.

About 80 percent of the absentee ballots were cast by non-Hispanic whites. But the lines at the early voting spots showed more color. So do the voting rolls, which were updated Saturday.

The new statistics show Republicans, who trailed Democrats by 658,000 in 2008 have cut that lead by more than 121,000.

But, relative to the overall voter rolls, the Republican Party is becoming proportionately whiter. Its non-Hispanic white population grew 4 percent in four years, while the state’s overall white-voter population increased just 2 percent overall.

Overall, since 2008, Hispanics have grown 22 percent on the voter rolls. But GOP Hispanics increased just 9 percent while the Democrats’ Hispanics increased 26 percent.

An increasing proportion of Hispanics preferred neither party, increasing the no party affiliation ranks by nearly 36 percent. NPA Hispanics now number more than 513,000, 37,000 more than Republican Hispanics. There are still more registered Democratic Hispanics at nearly 645,000.

Black voters overall grew by 10 percent in Florida, but decreased by 5 percent for the GOP and grew 9 percent for the Democrats.

At the West Flagler Branch Library in Miami-Dade, the lines didn’t matter to voters who deemed this election too important.

Bryan Cardenas, 62, a Republican, said he couldn’t go wrong in voting for the Romney-Ryan ticket.

“Obama and Biden have had four years to get it right,” Cardenas. “It’s time the Romney-Ryan administration clean things up.”

Cardenas also said he supports Romney’s plans to repeal Obamacare when he gets in office.

“Obamacare sounds nice,” Cardenas said, “but it is not realistic and Romney knows how to make real changes in Medicare.”

Miami Herald contributors Theo Karantsalis, Angel Doval, Elizabeth de Armas, Sabrina Rodriguez, Eileen Soler and Jessica De Leon contributed to this report.