Under giant oak trees covered with Spanish moss, the line of voters formed around the back of the building at Precinct 818 on Tuesday. Some 200 residents were already there when the doors opened at 7 a.m. EST.
One voter commented that four years ago he only had to wait five minutes to vote. But this time, because of a much larger turnout, it took an hour and a half.
Despite the lines, polling supervisor Anne Nolan said everything was going smoothly, and that there were no disruptions caused by machine problems or poll watchers.
Shelly Lasanta agreed, noting this was the first time she had used an electronic touch-screen voting machine. “It was extremely easy, very easy,” she said.
Diverse corridor microcosm of state
This precinct located in the Hillsborough County Farm Bureau, east of Tampa, is in many ways a microcosm of central Florida, the increasingly diverse and politically independent region that is highly coveted by politicians.
The line outside the polling place Tuesday was filled with whites, blacks and a few Hispanics, young and old. The area used to be largely rural and older. Now it is becoming increasingly suburban and younger, as is the case with much of Florida in the face of rapid development.
Politically, the precinct is also mixed. According to the Supervisor of Elections office, there are 1,033 Republicans, 934 Democrats, and 676 voters who registered Independent or with no party affiliation.
Political pollster Jim Kane, editor of the Florida Voter, said Hillsborough County is one of state’s most important swing counties. It narrowly voted for Bill Clinton in 1996, and George W. Bush in 2000.
“It tends to go with the winner in Florida, and it is the heart and the center of what we call the I-4 corridor, which tends to be the swing area of Florida,” Kane said.
Gotta win I-4 region to win state
The region along Interstate Highway 4, stretching from Tampa through Orlando to Daytona Beach is considered by most political analysts to be where this year’s presidential election in Florida will be decided.
The eight-county area is famed for its large cadre of new and independent minded voters -- and Bush and Sen. John Kerry made frequent campaign visits to the area this year, including last weekend.
“If you don’t win the I-4 corridor, you are unlikely to win the rest of the state,” said Kane. He added that this year, “we don’t know what the central Florida area is going to do.”
Heavy voter turnout
What is known is that voter turnout was heavy, even before the polls opened.
At many of Florida’s early polling sites over the last two weeks, voters waited for three to four hours in the hot sun.
Dan Nolan, the Chief of Staff for the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections, said of the more than 626,000 voters, 160,000 had voted early or by absentee ballots before the polls opened Tuesday.
Still, at Precinct 818 the long lines under the majestic oak trees continued to form, and will likely stay that way until closing time at 7 p.m.