Five hundred and thirty-seven: That's the number of votes that separated then Vice-President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election in Florida. For 35 days, the Sunshine State was the center of a recount battle that held the nation captive until a December 12 decision by the United States Supreme Court ended the legal maneuverings and resulted in a 271-266 Electoral College victory for W. Floridians certainly learned the hard way that every vote counts.
This time around, although polling sites didn't welcome voters until 7:00 a.m, people eagerly began assembling two hours before at Loretta Ingraham Community Center in Hillsborough County to vote. According to Kurt Browning, Florida's secretary of state, 4.2 million Floridians-38 percent of the 11.2 million registered voters-opted for early or absentee ballots. Some 146,322 residents of Hillsborough County participated in early voting, setting a new record.
By 7:00 a.m, nearly 60 residents were in line, waiting their turn to use the paper-ballot- based optical scan voting machine. According to Carolyn Burton, who works in the education system, the need for change pushed her to rise early this morning. "I feel very excited and happy to know that the day has finally arrived, and anxious to know the outcome," says Burton. "I'm voting because I'm interested in my country and how it's run." The possibility and hope for change also brought first-time voter Marion Matthews, 30, to the polls with a sense of urgency. "I feel really confident that something big is going to happen," says Matthews, "so why not vote?"
While many, such as Sammecia Bagley, 35, and Iris Patten, 29, cast their votes early, the symbolic nature of this election inspired Reginald Nickson, 53, to wait until Election Day. "The political process is important, so everyone who is eligible to vote should," Nickson says. "I have voted in every election since I turned 18."
The historic significance of this year's campaign was on the minds of early voters. Patten, a graduate student, hasn't lived in Hillsborough County since turning 18 and has always cast an absentee ballot. However, this year she made it her business to visit the polls. "This was the first time that I stood in line to physically cast my ballot," says Patten. "Voting by mail is one thing, but standing in line makes my vote feel more personal."
Bagley, an Obama/Biden campaign volunteer, admits that the Chi-Town senator's encouragement to fight complacency drove her to the polls early. "I wanted to be one of the first to vote on the first day of early voting," says Bagley, "so that I could inspire others to do the same."
Felicia Harvey is the editor of Blackpoliticsontheweb.com