Florida Gov. Crist extends early voting hours statewide

Declaring a state of emergency in Florida because of long voting lines, Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday extended early voting hours across the state to 12 hours a day.

The executive order comes after record early voting turnout has contributed to long lines at polling sites.

Current Florida law allows for early voting to be conducted eight hours a day each weekday and for a total of eight hours during the weekends. With Crist's order, early voting sites will be open the rest of this week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. They will be open a total of 12 hours on Saturday and Sunday, the last day of early voting.

''It's not a political decision,'' Crist said moments after signing the order. ``It's a people decision.''

Crist said he made the decision after seeing numerous news reports about long lines and after he had a conversation with state House Democratic leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach. Crist's appointed secretary of state, Kurt Browning, had rejected the idea of extending the early voting hours earlier this week.

The precedent for extending voting hours came in 2002, when then-Gov. Jeb Bush agreed to longer polling hours during the September primary when it was the first time many counties were using electronic voting machines and Miami-Dade and Broward were delayed in opening their polling sites.

Crist's decision elicited grumbling from fellow Republicans concerned about high Democratic turnout, but Gelber said the current situation necessitated an executive order.

''I think it's exactly the right thing to do, and I give the governor credit for doing it,'' Gelber said.

The announcement comes amid record early voting turnout.

Monday marked the largest single-day turnout in Miami-Dade and Broward counties so far, and throngs of voters continued to flock to South Florida polls Tuesday.

More than 43,000 people cast their votes in the two counties on Monday, roughly 5,000 more than on any other previous day.

In Miami-Dade, Monday's tally was 24,683. In Broward, 18,673. Both shattered previous single-day highs for 2008.

In all, nearly 1.2 million people statewide had voted as of 5 a.m. Monday -- roughly 10 percent of the state's registered voters.

The state didn't track daily early voting numbers in 2004. But Miami-Dade and Broward elections officials say they expect the early voting turnout to surpass that of the last presidential election.

The polls in Miami-Dade opened at 11 a.m. Tuesday with an all-too-familiar story: lines that wrapped around buildings, and even blocks.

Last week, both counties started posting estimated wait times at each of the 37 early voting spots, but Tuesday, those projections proved overly optimistic. The longest wait in the county: West Kendall Regional Library, at a tidy four hours.

Coral Gables Library, Miami Beach City Hall and the Stephen P. Clark Center all had voters in and out in an hour, according to the Miami-Dade Elections website. At least at the Clark Center, the county's estimate was spot on, even though the line stretched roughly 1 blocks.

Lizbeth Muller, 42, of Miami Shores, didn't check wait times online before voting, but she did drive by a few locations before choosing Lemon City. At the North Miami Library, Muller said, she saw a line three blocks long.

The county estimated the wait at Lemon City was two hours; Muller waited longer. Broward's best bet for early voting Tuesday morning: the Northwest Regional Library in Coral Springs, where the wait was an estimated 45 minutes.

The longest lines? Again in heavily black areas, most notably Fort Lauderdale's African-American Research Library. As of 10 a.m., voters were told the wait was roughly three hours to cast a ballot.

By early afternoon, Miramar City Hall's estimated time was even longer.

For voters who did stick around, they waited their turn to cast ballots in a packed auditorium. Other voters took advantage of the cool weather and waited outside.

Gene Baldwin, a Fort Lauderdale voter, said he wasn't sure how he would pass the time waiting for his turn.