How Florida lines up may decide everything

By Farhad Manjoo
Published November 2, 2004 7:59AM (UTC)
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Florida's early voting experiment ended remarkably successfully this evening, with some of the state's major counties reporting that as many as a quarter of their voters cast ballots in the previous two weeks.

The early voting period was meant to highlight problems that could crop up on Election Day, and in that sense, too, the project has been instructive. Of all the difficulties encountered by voters here in Miami and across the state so far, none has been as troubling -- not Republican mischief, nor voting machine glitches, nor poll worker ineptitude -- as the disturbingly long lines voters have had to face just to cast a ballot. Now, just hours before the polls open on Election Day, some here are bracing for what they say could be lines that are even longer than the ones we've already seen.

Will people have to wait in five- or six-hour queues at some precincts on Tuesday, especially at the perennially overcrowded polling places in minority neighborhoods in Miami? That's not out of the realm of possibility, says Cleve Mesidor, a spokeswoman for America Coming Together, the national advocacy group that's mounting one of the largest get-out-the-vote campaigns here. The group has been preparing its voters, she says, for a long wait. Among voters at early voting stations here, too, there is a widespread perception that waiting in a three-hour early voting line is probably getting off easy; those who come to vote on Tuesday, they say, are likely to wait much longer than that.

Officials here, though, say that lines on Tuesday could actually be shorter than the ones we've seen so far. That's because "everyone who voted during the early period doesn't have to vote now," says Seth Kaplan, a spokesman for the county's election office. He explained that by the close of polls today, about 350,000 voters in Miami-Dade will have already cast their ballots. That will leave about 750,000 more registered voters in the county, of which roughly 500,000 are expected to vote on Tuesday, assuming a turnout similar to the one during 2000 (an assumption that may prove way off). Kaplan would not promise there won't be long lines in Miami on Tuesday, but still says, "I can tell you that the success of early voting is going to make things a lot better for tomorrow."

What tomorrow brings is anybody's guess, of course. Still, it's worth noting that the county should have seen this coming. In early October, the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition, an enterprising watchdog group based in this county of famously flawed elections, discovered that because Miamians would be voting a particularly long ballot this year, people would likely take a long time -- nine or 10 minutes or more -- to cast their votes. This fact rang alarm bells for the group, and the press here has since been warning of a crisis. But the county seems to have done nothing to address it.

The long lines could pose a problem for John Kerry, who needs to do very well among minorities in heavily Democratic South Florida in order to offset Bush's margins in the state's Republican regions to the north. So far, he's been doing just that. But can working people afford to take off six hours from the job on Tuesday? So far, anecdotal evidence suggests that few voters have ended up ducking out of long voting lines. But will that remain true on Election Day?

The long lines could also delay election results. In Florida, anybody who's in line by the polling place's closing time will be allowed to vote. If some voting lines in Miami are five hours long, it means that a voter who joins a line at 7 p.m. EST, when the polls close, may not cast his or her ballot until midnight.

If the race to that point is very close, it's possible that the entire nation will be waiting right alongside the poor voters down here.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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