ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A judge extended early voting hours in one Florida county Sunday after Democrats sued to allow more time in a presidential battleground state where more than 4 million ballots have already been cast. The move was one of many legal skirmishes in the tight contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to deal with inevitable disputes over balloting.
Some Florida voters had stood in long lines Saturday, the last scheduled day of early voting. The judge ruled on a lawsuit filed late Saturday in Orange County after an early voting site was shut down for several hours. The Winter Park library was evacuated when a suspicious package — a cooler — was found outside. It was later detonated by a local bomb squad.
Orange County is part of the state’s Interstate 4 corridor, a populous “swing” region that often determines the outcome of close elections.
A spokesman for the state Republican Party said it would not challenge the decision.
The Florida conflict was just the latest to emerge in a presidential race whose winner may be determined by how many people take advantage of early voting. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia now allow early balloting, including Florida, whose 29 electoral votes make it the largest of the closely fought battlegrounds.
Early voting has been central to the Obama campaign’s efforts to win Florida and other swing states. More Democrats than Republicans tend to vote early, and a sizable advantage among early voters in Florida in 2008 helped Obama defeat Republican rival John McCain by 3 points, 51 percent-48 percent.
Early voting in Ohio, this year’s most closely-fought swing state, has also been a source of legal wrangling.
A federal appeals court last month reinstated early voting on the last 3 days before Tuesday’s election, handing a victory to the Obama campaign. The ruling overturned a state law saying early voting should end on the Friday before the election, making an exception only for voters living overseas and for military personnel, who tend to favor Republican candidates.
The Romney campaign has advocated for early balloting rights of military voters. Former Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi last month sent letters to officials in four states, including Wisconsin, a presidential battleground, demanding the deadline for receiving ballots from military personnel and overseas voters be extended.
And in Iowa, the Republican National Committee asked election officials to investigate claims of absentee ballot misuse by Democrats.
But Florida’s early voting program was the main focus in the campaign’s final weekend, with memories of the state’s disputed 2000 presidential vote between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush still fresh.
Besides the Orange County challenge, Democrats filed a federal lawsuit Sunday seeking more voting time in Broward County and in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, where balloting didn’t wrap up until early Sunday morning to accommodate voters still standing in long lines when the polls closed.
The Miami-Dade elections office reopened to accept absentee ballots Sunday after shutting down temporarily.
Deputy Supervisor Christina White said officials closed the location out of concern that their limited personnel and one printer couldn’t handle the large crowd who showed up. Voters banged on the front doors and demanded to vote, prompting staff to reopen the office about an hour later.
Palm Beach County began accepting absentee ballots at 9 a.m. Sunday. “I decided to open because we are allowed to do so,” said Susan Bucher, supervisor of elections in Palm Beach County.
Broward County allowed voters to pick up absentee ballots Sunday, but only if they made an appointment in advance.
Early voting differs from absentee balloting in Florida. Early voting takes place at multiple sites and uses the same machines as those used on Election Day. Absentee voters must go to the supervisor of elections’ office and fill out a mail-in ballot, then hand it to a worker.
At the Winter Park Library site in Orange County, voters were offered provisional ballots, which are reviewed by local canvassing boards before they are counted. Some voters left upon hearing the information, opting to drive to the election supervisor’s office and cast an absentee ballot instead.
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