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Millions of Voters in Florida Cast Ballots Early


More than one million new voters, tens of thousands of missing ballots, and complaints from prospective voters not allowed to cast ballots because of faulty voter registration procedures are just some of the issues raising tensions in the U.S. state of Florida, five days before the U.S. election. VOA's Jim Teeple has more from our Miami bureau.

Voters are already casting ballots in Florida. In multi-ethnic Miami, voters get their instructions in English, Haitian Creole and Spanish as they wait to use brand new touch screen voting machines.

Florida this year approved early voting, which allows voters to come to polling stations before Election Day to cast their ballots. With more than one million new registered voters in Florida and new touch-screen voting machines in many Florida counties, election officials hope that early voting will help ease lines on Election Day. Voting in downtown Miami, Irene, who declined to give her last name, says early voting is an idea whose time has come.

"I think it is a good thing, because of the history, certainly in this state of problems with voting and glitches with machines, and I think it good to have the opportunity, because on Election Day you could stand in line for hours and then be discouraged, and then a lot of people would not vote," she said.

Election officials say each day more than 25,000 people in Miami-Dade county vote early. The situation is similar in other parts of the state.

Seth Kaplan, the spokesman for the Miami-Dade Elections Department, says voter interest this year is at an all-time high.

"Anything measurable is at a record level," he noted. "We have record numbers of new voter registration applications, record numbers of absentee ballot requests. So it certainly does not surprise us to see a very high level of interest in the election itself. That is what we hoped to see and it does appear to be playing out, at least in the early voting period. So, we would not be surprised to see a high level of interest on Election Day as well, the good news is that early voting tends to mitigate lines on Election Day although this is a presidential election and there is a lot of interest so we would no be surprised to see a big turnout on Election Day. "

So far, voting is proceeding smoothly in Miami-Dade County, but elsewhere in Florida there are problems. In Broward County, just north of Miami, county election officials say about 70,000 people who requested absentee ballots have not received them. County officials are scrambling to mail the ballots in time for Election Day.

Across the state there have been complaints from thousands of prospective voters whose registration forms have been rejected for not being filled out completely.

There have also been complaints from ex-felons who are banned from voting. Courts are not expected to rule on a lawsuit to overturn the ban before Election Day.

Lance De Haven Smith, a professor of Public Administration at Florida State University is an expert on Florida voting. He says despite early voting in Florida, the large numbers of new voters this year could overwhelm the system on Election Day, affecting turnout.

"Given how close the state is, any new registered voters who go to the polls will make a difference," he said. "I think the bigger challenge will be making sure that all these people get to vote. We really have not increased the number of sites and equipment and the people commensurate [to go along] with the growth of the electoral base and at the same time it is taking much longer for people to cast their ballots. You are likely to have some bottlenecks on Election Day that could end up discouraging voters and the turnout may not be as high as people expect at the end of the day."

State election officials say if delays slow down voters, they will keep the polls open on Election Day past closing time, in order to allow people to vote.

They also say people who want to vote, but cannot produce correct identification at the polling station may cast what are called provisional ballots that will be verified later by election officials to see if they count. The system of provisional balloting in the United States was approved by Congress following the 2000 election, when many voters were turned away after their names were not found on local voter registration rolls.

Experts warn however that provisional ballots must be counted and verified on an individual basis, and that could take days, or even weeks to do if there are large numbers of such ballots, as there are likely to be in Florida, where voter turnout is expected to set record levels.
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