Florida wraps up early voting for presidential primaries

Miami Herald

Many came prepared for a wait, and at some early voting sites, they found one.

As Florida wrapped up 10 days of early voting, voters on Sunday surged to the polls, eager to cast their ballots in a state that could once again prove critical in the presidential election.

Miami-Dade County typically sees a flood of voters during the final early-voting hours, and Sunday was no different. Wait times, estimated hourly by poll workers, jumped Sunday afternoon to about an hour in several locations, including the Coral Reef, Kendall and West Dade libraries. Other sites, such as the Coral Gables, North Dade and West Kendall libraries, also proved popular.

So popular that Matthew McDonald decided to wait until Tuesday. The line at the Coral Gables Library was moving, but poll workers said it could be up to an hour, McDonald said on his way out.

“It’s the post-church, post-lunch rush,” he said. McDonald, 52, said he’d try back later in the day or on Tuesday to cast his ballot in support of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. McDonald also likes local son Sen. Marco Rubio, but said “he’s made a lot of mistakes. That debate? Repeating himself 67 times like he was a robot? I don’t know if he’s going to make it.”

Charles Hernandez, 64, voted for Rubio, largely in hopes of blocking Republican front-runner Donald Trump. If the real estate magnate takes the nomination, Hernandez says he’ll vote for the Democratic nominee: “He’s not presidential,” Hernandez said of Trump, who is poised in most polls to best Rubio in his home state.

Trump was to hold a rally in Boca Raton Sunday night, but canceled one planned for Doral on Monday, instead electing to campaign in Ohio where polls show him in a tight race with Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Lucas Lorenzo, 18, cast his first vote ever for president and backed Rubio, who went to the same high school as his mother.

“And I like everything he stands for,” Lorenzo said of Rubio. He said he thought Trump’s candidacy “was a joke, but now he kind of freaks me out.”

The busiest site in the county throughout the two weeks of early voting might hearten Republicans: It was the West Dade Regional Library, a GOP stronghold near Rubio's hometown of West Miami.

Statewide, nearly 2 million voters had already cast ballots, with Republicans surpassing Democrats, according to the state Division of Elections.

Republicans accounted for more than 1.1 million early voters, while about 819,000 Democrats cast ballots.

Democratic contender Hillary Clinton has a wide lead over rival Bernie Sanders in Florida, and neither campaigned in the state over the weekend. Clinton, though, sent surrogates to African-American churches and participated in a call with Florida ministers and pastors. She is scheduled to be in Miami awaiting election results Tuesday night.

Bishop Victor Curry of New Birth Baptist Church told his congregation that he had introduced Clinton on the call, adding that the last time he had introduced a candidate on a similar call “that person ended up president for eight years. I’m just sayin’.”

Curry said he couldn’t endorse from the pulpit, but encouraged his parishioners to get to the polls on the day dubbed “Souls to the Polls.”

“It’s very important that we go out and vote,” Curry said, referencing the violence that broke out at a Trump rally in Chicago. “We don’t want that for four years.”

By about 3 p.m. Sunday, an hour before polls closed, early turnout had already surpassed participation in 2008, the last time both political parties were electing a nominee. Some 66,000 ballots were cast in advance of Primary Day eight years ago, and about 78,000 had voted in Miami-Dade by Sunday. Another 114,000 ballots had been cast by mail as of Saturday.

Supervisor of Elections Christina White said waits were at 15 minutes or less for the duration of early voting, but “we saw a spike in the final hours of voting, which is very common the last day.”

In Broward as of Sunday, nearly 70,000 had voted early in person, and nearly 75,000 had voted by mail.

Phil Grant of Fort Lauderdale cast his ballot for Trump on Saturday at the Coral Ridge Mall: “While I don’t believe he necessarily has 100 percent of the answers, I believe he is a leader,” Grant said. He added that Trump’s language “isn’t appropriate,” but argued that Trump “does seemed to have toned it down.”

Grant, a former stockbroker who now runs a small business that helps people move their pets to other countries, said he was drawn to Trump’s leadership.

“He’s got a ‘pair,’ if you know what I mean,” Grant said. “He’s not going to take crap from any side.”

Across the way, the tea party of Fort Lauderdale held its weekly rally near the mall, with longtime organizer Edward Bender holding a sign that read “I’d rather have a ‘Canadian’ than a con-man” — a show of support for Cruz, who was born in Canada to an American mother and a Cuban father.

Bender considers Trump a “con man” for his business dealings, including lawsuits against now-defunct Trump University.

“We don’t need a businessman for America — you can’t go to Washington, D.C., and fire Congress,” Bender said.

By most accounts, there were few problems at early voting sites.

That was not the case four years ago, when chaos erupted the Sunday before the general election in Miami-Dade. State lawmakers had banned Sunday voting, prompting elections officials to offer in-person Sunday voting via absentee ballot. So many people showed up at the elections headquarters in Doral that workers then had to briefly shut the doors to figure out how to deal with the crowd.

That experience is why Miami-Dade was “so happy” legislators restored Sunday voting ahead of the 2014 gubernatorial election. Not every county offered Sunday voting, but Miami-Dade and Broward did — in Broward's case, until 7 p.m.

Miami-Dade had registered no complaints about early voting, elections supervisor White said, dismissing Trump's allegations on Twitter Saturday that Rubio and his supporters had tried to “rig the vote.”

“I don't know what the genesis of that was,” White said. “We haven't had any complaints or allegations here in Miami-Dade, so when I saw that, I assumed it was somewhere else.”

State elections officials also disputed Trump's suggestion of “dishonest” early voting, The Associated Press reported.

The biggest challenge, according to White, was to remind voters registered without party affiliation that Florida's primary is closed, meaning only Democrats and Republicans can vote in each party’s primary. She expects similar confusion Tuesday at the polls.

“It happens in every primary,” she said. “With this particular election, it seems people are particularly energized.”

She urged voters to check their registration cards to check if they're eligible — and to make sure their polling location remains the same. New precincts mean some voters have been assigned different polls since the last election. Unlike during early voting, voters must cast ballots at their assigned precincts on Election Day.

Only Trump campaigned in South Florida on Sunday, although the Cruz campaign said it organized groups of volunteers to knock on voters’ doors in Miami on Saturday and Sunday. Rubio campaigned in the Tampa area and his campaign worked the phones and volunteers waved signs at several early voting sites.

Former President Bill Clinton will return to Florida on Monday with stops in Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Winter Park.

Miami Herald staff writers Patricia Mazzei and Amy Sherman contributed to this story.