Final day of early voting goes late into the night

The scores of early voters who showed up at the polls shortly after sunrise Saturday, determined to beat the crowds, were counting on other people sleeping in.

They didn’t.

When 37 polling sites in Miami-Dade and Broward counties opened at 7 a.m. on the last day of early voting, two had five-hour waits. The wait was four hours or longer at three other sites.

And the waits only got longer.

Voters in line by the time closed at 7 p.m. were allowed to vote. At 6:42 p.m., the Miami-Dade elections department estimated that a half a dozen sites had six-hour lines. On Friday, the Miami-Dade voters had stayed open until 11 p.m.

At the Miramar Library on Saturday night, 56-year-old Dan Whiting said he thought the line would shrink as the day grew older.

He was wrong. He arrived at around 6:30 p.m. and his expected wait time was four to five hours. The line had about 550 people.

“This is a new experience for me,” said Whiting, a lifelong Republican who recently returned to Florida after living in New England. He works for a defense contractor, “so I have to vote Republican,” he joked.

He said he drove by the library four times Saturday thinking the line would be shorter until he finally gave in.

Verdieu Lucas, 53, of Pembroke Pines, was near the end of the line shortly before 7 p.m., and vowed to stay no matter the wait.

Three hours and 40 minutes later, Lucas, a Democrat, walked out of the Miramar Library having completed his ballot, including a vote for President Barack Obama.

Lucas said he decided to early vote after he requested — but never received — an absentee ballot from elections officials.

“I work and did not want to take the risk and miss the chance to vote on Tuesday,” said Lucas, who said he saw nobody leave the early vote line late Saturday night.

When Guy Lacombe arrived at the West Kendall Regional Library — around 6:50 a.m., he said — he figured he would vote quickly and pick up breakfast to bring back to his wife and three children.

He was still in line shortly before noon.

“I almost left,” said Lacombe, a 47-year-old engineer. “I don’t know why I stayed.”

Maybe it was because he had tried to vote by mail while he was away on a business trip, but his absentee ballot only arrived at his hotel after he had left. He wasn’t sure the envelope would make it to Miami by Tuesday.

And it may have helped that he became buddies with three other men standing in line. One of them, Ernest Pacheco, a 42-year-old contractor, peeled away to bring coffee and pastelitos — and then did not want to let the others pay him back.

The men passed the hours chatting. Candidates — U.S. Rep. David Rivera and his challenger, Joe Garcia; Miami-Dade commission rivals Manny Machado and Juan C. Zapata; Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, campaigning for a construction bond issue — walked up and down the line, shaking hands.

“My wife is asking me why I haven’t played Words with Friends” on his cell phone, said Ron Fillous, 52, an accountant. “I said, ‘Because I made new friends.’”

They found political common ground. They teased Lacombe for looking like the candidate he planned to vote for, Obama. (Smaller ears, Fillous noted.) Jose Del Rosario, a 54-year-old accountant, criticized Mitt Romney’s shifting positions on issues. They bemoaned that Gov. Rick Scott did not extend early voting into Sunday.

“I’m afraid Tuesday is going to be worse,” Fillous said.

The numbers show there’s a chance that almost half of the vote in Florida will be cast by Election Day, thanks to early and absentee ballots. Nearly 4 million people had already voted through Friday — about 44 percent of 9 million likely voters. More than 2 million ballots had been cast in a week of early voting, with Saturday to go.

When people go to their precincts Tuesday, their ballots — while still 10 to 12 pages long — will be entirely pre-printed, since all voters in one precinct vote for the same races. That should save some time. At early voting sites, where any county voter could show up, some pages were pre-printed, but others were printed as voters checked in.

Democrats, Democratic-leaning groups and the Monroe County elections supervisor, a Republican, had asked the governor this week to extend early voting. But he declined Thursday night. On Saturday, Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat seeking reelection, repeated the request.

Scott signed a law last year put forth by the GOP-controlled state Legislature eliminated early voting the Sunday before Election Day, after Democrats turned out in massive numbers that day in 2008. The law also shortened early-voting days to eight from 14, keeping the number of maximum hours offered the same on the books. But four years ago, then-Gov. Charlie Crist extended early voting by another 24 hours.

Voters can still request an absentee ballot in person, and turn them in, at elections supervisors’ offices.

On Saturday, not all polling places were equally packed. The wait at the downtown Fort Lauderdale library was a mere 30 minutes early Saturday.

“They are really doing a good job,” said Lindsey MacGruer, 33, a Republican who said she had arrived ready to wait for hours.

But if voting was quick in Fort Lauderdale, it moved at a crawl in Miramar.

Glenda Mitchell, 34, said she arrived at 6:30 a.m. — half an hour before the polling site opened — and found herself behind 150 people. “How early did the other people show up to be at the front door?”

Mitchell, a billing clerk, waited in line more than five hours to vote for Obama.

“There was no guarantee that I could vote on Tuesday,” she said. “And I didn’t want to end up working late and missing out.”

Some voters came prepared — or quickly realized that they would need provisions.

At Miami City Hall, where voters soaked in stunning views of the sailboats on Biscayne Bay, Tish and Jason Gross arrived around 9 a.m. with a canvas bag carrying bottled water and their iPads. Soon after, he ran home to get lawn chairs. Both breakfast and lunch consisted of hot dogs purchased from a well-placed vendor at the start of the line.

“It feels like waiting in line at Disney,” Jason Gross said.

Nearby, 59-year-old Diane Fitzsimmons and her daughter, Allison, had brought books and tailgating chairs. Both said they have to work Tuesday.

“Governor Scott put the kibosh on early voting this year, so we’re doing what we have to do,” said Fitzsimmons, an independent who planned to vote for Obama. “We need more early voting days.”

As of Friday, Democrats led Republicans by about 187,000 in early, in-person voting. Republicans led Democrats by 84,000 in absentee ballots cast.

Though voters’ mood was generally mellow, some early-voting sites had a party-like atmosphere. At West Kendall, a Colombian chiva bus, with its traditional bright colors and open roof rack, transported a small band of drummers, and a DJ played music — think “Gangnam Style” — before police officers told him to stop because there were complaints. The bus and DJ were campaigning for Obama.

At the North Miami Public Library, where the line wrapped around the entire property and some voters waited up to six hours, Smith Joseph, running for city mayor, had giant speakers on the back of a black pick-up truck blasting upbeat kompa music. Some people danced.

Frederick Hyppolite, 46, who arrived with his wife and four children at 7 a.m., didn’t make it inside the library until 2 p.m. He had tried to vote Friday, he said, but was turned away because of a misprint on his driver’s license. He spent Friday evening at the Department of Motor Vehicles fixing the mistake.

“This is obviously something that I care about,” he said. “The president needs our support.”

But not everyone who made it to a line Saturday stayed.

At the West Dade Regional Library, 59-year-old Rolando Gutierrez, who was next-to-last in line at around 2 p.m., told the woman behind him, 45-year-old Maria Corro, that he was thinking of leaving to avoid the three- or four-hour wait.

“Maybe it will be less,” said Corro, a nurse who had been dropped off by her husband. She had brought along her 11-year-old daughter, Sofia, who sat on a bench doing homework. “You have to think positive.”

But a few minutes later, Gutierrez walked away.

“I don’t have a choice,” said Gutierrez, who works the night shift loading trucks for UPS. “I have to sleep.”

He said he plans to go to his precinct on Tuesday, to vote for Obama, whom he voted for four years ago.

“Maybe on the 6th, at my own polling place, it won’t be like this,” he said. “This is outrageous.”

Miami Herald Executive Editor Aminda Marqués González and political writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.