Voters in key battleground state of Florida to begin casting early ballots |

Voters in key battleground state of Florida to begin casting early ballots

Associated Press Writer

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) – With memories of 2000 and its bitter fight over ballots still fresh, citizens began casting votes Monday in this pivotal battleground state.

In Palm Beach County, a steady flow turned out Monday morning at more than a dozen sites. Patrick Flanagan, who went to the county’s election headquarters to cast his ballot, said he voted early because he wanted to avoid the long lines on Election Day. He said he’s voted on the touch-screen machines once before, and both times have gone “very smoothly.”

“I’m a computer-phobe, and it seemed easy enough to me,” said Flanagan, who added that he had no concerns about his vote being counted.

Also coming out of the polls on Monday, Steve Perez, 44, said he came early to cast a “protest vote” for Ralph Nader.

“What’s important is that you vote. I didn’t want to get in all the hoopla with all the turnout in Election Day,” said Perez, a substitute teacher.

Early voting also gets under way Monday in Texas, Colorado and Arkansas. Other key states this year have already begun in-person voting, including Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

In Miami-Dade County, about 150 people gathered Monday morning for a rally led by the Rev. Al Sharpton and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Some people were carrying homemade signs that said “Early Voting Counts” and “Every Vote Matters.”

Rosemarie Michel, 41, said she would cast her first vote in a presidential election when the poll site opened later in the day. Michel came to the United States from Haiti, became a U.S. citizen in 1998 but did not vote in the 2000 election because she “wasn’t interested.”

Now she is knocking on doors and telling people to vote.

“Every vote counts,” Michel said.

Early voting was introduced in Florida after the 2000 election, in which this crucial state decided the result by only 537 votes and introduced topics such as butterfly ballots and hanging chads to the national debate.

Both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry arranged campaign swings through the Sunshine State over the weekend.

“There are probably a lot of people in Florida who are ready to cast their ballot,” said Mindy Tucker Fletcher, senior adviser for the Bush campaign in Florida.

Some groups are urging voters to cast a paper absentee ballot because of concerns over the state’s new touch-screen voting machines and any potential recounts. Voters Monday morning could choose either method. Others are touting early voting as a chance for busy voters to avoid waiting in line Nov. 2.

“It’s going to be changing the way candidates campaign because they have to get their message out to people two to three weeks earlier than in the past,” said Palm Beach County elections supervisor Theresa LePore.

Even as voters turned out Monday morning, lawyers were going to court in Fort Lauderdale to argue a lawsuit over the lack of paper backup on the electronic machines.

Some have criticized the concept of early voting, saying it increases opportunities for vote fraud without significantly boosting participation. Still, most states offer the option.

Across Florida, Democratic college students camped overnight at election offices to be the first in line Monday. The state’s congressional black caucus is traveling to five cities over four days to emphasize early voting and voter protection.

For voters in Palm Beach County, home of the infamous butterfly ballot, the get-out-the-vote effort has attracted record attention, said Fred Dibean, vice president of the county’s Young Democrats.

“The problem happened here last time, and we don’t want it to happen again,” he said. “We want to be the ones to fix it.”

Election officials say that although the early-voting efforts create more work, they’re pushing for voters to make their voices heard any way they can.

“As long as people vote, we’re happy,” said LePore, who lost her re-election bid in August over the butterfly ballot but remains in office until January. “But if something really bad happens about a candidate two days before an election, you can’t change your vote.”

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