MIAMI — Florida kicked off early voting on Monday, with record crowds heading to the polls and voters waiting hours to cast their ballots. Elections officials said the few reported problems were minor.
Final statewide numbers for ballots cast Monday won't be available until Tuesday, but counties large and small, traditionally Democrat and traditionally Republican, were reporting record turnout. The early voting sites will remain open two weeks until the weekend before Election Day.
"Lines are a sign of a healthy democracy, and certainly our democracy is healthy today," said Secretary of State Kurt Browning.
The Sunshine State is again key this election season, with a prize of 27 electoral votes _ 10 percent of the 270 needed to clinch the election. The state's disputed election in 2000 gave the presidency to George W. Bush, and he captured the state in 2004. This year, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama are locked in a close race.
Registration numbers released Sunday show a 600,000-voter edge for Democrats over Republicans in Florida: 4.7 million versus 4.1 million, with 2.1 million people identifying with neither party.
The McCain campaign acknowledged it expected more Democrats than Republicans to vote early, but says GOP voters have requested 295,000 absentee ballots statewide compared with 199,000 Democrats.
Underscoring how important the state is, Obama campaigned in Tampa, while former Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton held an event for him in Fort Lauderdale. They planned to appear together at an evening rally in Orlando.
On the Republican side, Meghan McCain, the candidate's daughter, was meeting with voters in central Florida, and her father planned to visit later in the week.
One McCain supporter was Jim Stancarone, an 86-year-old heavy truck equipment salesman, who called the Arizona senator "the lesser of two evils." He had been waiting for 45 minutes at a suburban Fort Lauderdale library and expected to be there two more hours.
Farther north in Palm Beach County, about 150 people waited outside the elections office. Many wore Obama T-shirts and buttons.
Dee Keener, 70, a retired secretary, said she voted for Obama _ even though she is a registered Republican.
"Obama's got the inspiration, the intelligence, the will to stay above all the dirty politics. It's just the man. I don't know how to explain it ... I'm shaking just talking about Obama," said Keener, who added she hasn't voted for a Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1992. " Turnout was also heavy in the Florida Panhandle, where McCain, a former Navy pilot who spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, is expected to do well among the large military contingent. Still, Obama had his supporters there.
Nationwide, about a third of the electorate is expected to vote early this year. That would be up from 22 percent in 2004 and 16 percent in 2000. In Florida, early voting continues until the weekend before Election Day.
Voters in every state can now cast ballots through early voting or absentee voting programs. Results won't be released until Nov. 4, but a look at those who have voted shows the Democrats have been aggressive.
In Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina and Ohio, Democrats _ or at least those living in heavily Democratic areas _ are requesting and submitting ballots in large numbers. In Florida, Republicans hold an edge, while in Indiana, absentee voting has been split among Republican and Democratic areas.
Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington in Sarasota, Brian Skoloff in West Palm Beach, Melissa Nelson in Pensacola, Ron Word in Jacksonville, Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee, Travis Reed in Pompano Beach and Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Florida Division of Elections: http://election.dos.state.fl.us/