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Florida Residents Vote Early

October 18, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Early voting: Florida, the center of the electoral storm four years ago, is one of 26 states that now allow voters to vote early without having to give any special reasons. Sen. Kerry campaigned in Florida today. President Bush will be there tomorrow. We get an update from Ray Suarez. He’s in Jacksonville tonight.

And good evening, sir.

RAY SUAREZ: Hi, Jim. Jim

JIM LEHRER: Ray, an overview. How did things go in general today?

RAY SUAREZ: When they opened the door at 8:00 A.M. At the supervisor of election office in Duval County, which includes Jacksonville, Florida, there was already a long line waiting at the doors and heading down the sidewalk waiting to get in there and vote when the polling places opened. They had two kinds of voting open this morning.

You could vote with the new touch screen machines that are being used in Florida or use a paper ballot that has filled in ovals that get scanned if you took standardized tests in school during the ’60s and ’70s, this will be familiar to you; fill in the little boxes for the candidates you choose, this will be familiar for you.

It seemed to be going smoothly and both the Republicans and the Democrats have original needs heavily around early voting here.

JIM LEHRER: The voting is the same kind, mechanically it’s the same that will be in effect on Election Day? You go to your local polling place or are there central places? Are there fewer places in each county to go?

RAY SUAREZ: Many, many fewer places. Each county of Florida’s 67 counties has a few designated early voting sites. Here in the county that includes Jacksonville, Duval County, it’s one of the largest counties in the state of Florida and controversially only opened one early voting site today.

JIM LEHRER: Now, unlike absentee voting, you can just show up, if you’re a registered voter, you can show up, right? You don’t have to have an affidavit or have to have any excuse or reason for voting early, is that right?

RAY SUAREZ: Exactly. This was introduced, according to supervisors of election, for the convenience of the voter, and it smoothes out the demand for places in the polling places. In effect, Election Day is 15 days in the state of Florida. It’s election season rather than just one day.

JIM LEHRER: What’s the point of this, Ray? Why did they do this?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, one thing is that there are hundreds of thousands of more registered voters in the state of Florida and in counties like Miami Dade, there are fewer polling places, so this will shorten the lines, lighten the crush that’s expected to show up at the polling places in Florida on Election Day.

It gladdens the hearts of both Republicans and Democrats who have organized very heavily around this, so they haven’t opposed what the election authorities have introduced. They’re using it as what they call “banking the vote.” They put their first emphasis on absentee voting to get out their most loyal voters and get those votes in the pipeline.

Then they put their second line of emphasis on early voting, using the machinery that we’re all familiar with, carpools and phone banks for over the period of two weeks, then finally they’ll put their Election-Day strategy into effect on Nov. 2.

JIM LEHRER: Essentially, this gives them a two-week election-day strategy, does it not? They can track, Sammy Sue has not voted, Billy Bob has, up over next two weeks, correct?

RAY SUAREZ: Absolutely. They can get partial counts and know not who has voted necessarily but know how many people have voted and get a rough idea of how much of their vote they’re pulling out in advance of Election Day.

Then you can use targeted phone banking, check in with people, see if they’ve early voted, check in with people you know who have applied for absentee ballots and checked they’ve mailed them in and keep that emphasis on all the way up until Election Day so you can more particularly target your Election Day get out the vote strategy because you’ve already known how much of your vote you have gotten out.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any informed speculation thus far, Ray, as to what percentage of the electorate will take advantage of this early voting?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, they’re really not sure. This is the first time that early voting has been available for a national election. They’ve used them before in Florida for statewide races. So everybody’s watching very closely to see how many people come out.

The election supervisor in Hillsboro County, which includes Tampa as its largest city, is predicting a 70 percent turnout for his county, which is far in excess of what has turned out nationally in recent presidential elections.

So given the attention on 2000, the controversy surrounding the 36-day count, supervisors of election in the counties across the state are expecting very, very heavy turn out, thus much heavier demand for early voting.

JIM LEHRER: That’s part of the 70 percent, in other words, they think the early voting will help contribute to this high turnout, correct?

RAY SUAREZ: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: And the problems of four years ago, this was also designed to alleviate those or the eliminate those, correct?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, they are still wrestling with some of the problems that they had, but I interviewed the secretary of state, the chief elections officer of the state of Florida earlier today, Glenda Hood, and she says pretty much everything is in place that they could put in place to protect the vote, ensure that people can vote.

They’ve put in new procedures so that one of the big problems that occurred in 2,000, people showing up and not finding their names on the roll and then casting provisional ballots only to have them not counted, only to have them thrown out, that won’t happen this time. They’ve got a system in place where those votes will be adjudicated and then if they’re found to be from valid voters counted.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, you’re going to be doing some more reporting from there between now and Election Day. We’ll look forward to that. Ray, thank you very much.

RAY SUAREZ: Good to talk to you.