Long lines quickly formed as early voting began in Florida on Saturday and electors confronted the longest ballot in their history, consisting of a range of choices from the next president to measures affecting healthcare reforms, the independence of the state supreme court and abortion.
Florida is a tight and important swing state, particularly for Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, who probably cannot win the presidency without taking its 29 electoral college votes.
Opinion polls consistently put Romney about two percentage points ahead of Barack Obama, and both camps say the outcome is likely to be decided by which side can turn out supporters.
The monster ballot includes 11 proposed amendments to the state constitution, some of which run for hundreds of words.
Officials advised people to read the wording before arriving at polling places but lines still backed up as it took even those voters familiar with the ballots about 10 minutes to fill them out. Others said they spent up to half an hour to complete the forms.
“I came prepared,” said Yvette Florian, waving the prepared ballot she copied her choices from, after voting at the Hart Memorial Central Library in Kissimmee.
By mid-morning the line to vote extended down a flight of stairs and into the middle of the library.
“There’s a lot of people want to vote. I think this is going to be a passionate election. There’s people who don’t want their welfare taken away and people who believe you should do it the old fashioned way and stand on your own two feet.”
Florian said she voted Republican.
“Romney won’t run up more debt. Or if he does, his spending will create more jobs. It won’t be handouts to the gimmies. I’m not a warmonger but if Romney spends on the military it’s still creating jobs,” said Florian who works for the state health department.
Joseph Saenz couldn’t disagree more.
“We need to keep social security going and Medicare. There’s people who don’t want to help people who need it,” he said.
Saenz, who works as a maintenance man for a liquor store, said he voted for Obama.
“He hasn’t done everything he should have,” he said. “But [the Republican-controlled] Congress has stopped him doing what he wanted to do. It’s like he’s banging his head into a brick wall.”
Besides electing the president, members of the US Congress and the Florida legislature, many voters in the state are choosing local councils, sheriffs and other officials.
They are also being asked to decide on proposed changes to Florida’s state constitution. First on the list is a measure designed to block Obama’s healthcare reforms by prohibiting laws that compel individuals to buy medical insurance – a key part of the president’s legislation.
Yesenia Valentin said she supported the change.
“I don’t like to be told what to do,” she said. “The less federal government the better.”
Valentin said she voted a straight Republican ticket with the exception of the local sheriff.
Even if the healthcare amendment passes, it is not clear that it is enforceable given that the US supreme court has already upheld what is known as the individual mandate.
Legislators have also placed an amendment on the ballot that would exempt abortion-related matters from the state’s privacy laws.
The measure comes after Florida courts blocked the legislatures attempts to pass laws limiting access to abortion, citing the state’s constitutional protections of privacy. The proposed change also bars state funds from paying for health insurance that includes abortion coverage.
Other constitutional amendments on the ballot include a proposal by the Republican-controlled Florida legislature to curb the power of the state supreme court which conservatives have frequently criticised as too liberal in its judgments.
More than 1 million of the estimated 9 million Floridians expected to vote have already cast an absentee ballot. Marginally more registered Republicans have voted than Democrats but the gap, at 5%, is considerably less than at the last presidential election – eroding a Republican advantage.
Voting is easier than Republican legislators had hoped after a federal court struck down a stringent new identification law as discriminatory.
The court also blocked restrictions on independent groups registering voters. But other new measures are in place including a cut in the number of early voting days and the closure of polling booths on the final Sunday before the election – the day on which large numbers of black people voted in Florida in 2008.
Black churches have been leading a push, “Souls to the Polls”, to get African Americans to vote early this weekend.
The state also made it more difficult for those who move house to register to vote, which is thought to disproportionately affect students who tend to lean toward the Democrats.
Floridians are particularly sensitive to problems with the vote given the state’s notorious role in the 2000 election when votes that could have delivered victory to the Democratic party candidate, Al Gore, were discounted as part of the “hanging chad” fiasco.
But already there are signs of trouble. Officials in Palm Beach county have spent the week painstakingly duplicating about 27,000 absentee ballots because a design flaw on the ballot papers meant the scanners could not read them. Every copied ballot is inspected by a Democratic party and a Republican poll watcher.
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