PUNTA GORDA, Fla. – Hurricane Charley (search) has forced Cathy Petzold out of her home for up to a year, but the storm didn't stop her from voting.
The 61-year-old retired computer company manager visited Charlotte County's elections office to cast an early vote for Tuesday's primary before leaving for Massachusetts, where she will be staying with her daughter.
"If people don't vote then we're not going to get what we want," Petzold said Thursday after she voted. "There are a lot of serious issues in the country, in the county, everywhere."
Many of nearly 137,000 registered voters will cast ballots at alternate polling places in three southwest Florida counties because of storm damage to their precincts, but state and local officials say the primary election will go on as scheduled.
Hundreds already have taken advantage of early voting and thousands more have sent in absentee ballots for primaries that include Democratic and Republican races to nominate candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Bob Graham, who is retiring.
"We're ready to go," said Charlotte County Supervisor of Elections Judy Anderson.
She couldn't say that two weeks ago when Charley cut a swath across Florida. The hurricane knocked out most of her county's 80 polling places, including several schools.
Anderson has consolidated those precincts into 22 super polling places. Each precinct will have its usual allotment of poll workers but in most cases they will share polling places with other precincts.
Similar consolidations have taken place in rural DeSoto and Hardee counties. Election officials are heartened because most poll workers have indicated they are ready to report for duty, which should prevent congestion.
Voting machines — optical scan in Hardee and DeSoto, and touchscreen in Charlotte — weathered the storm in good shape. Charlotte's machines, however, were retested as a precaution because water got into the warehouse where they are stored, Anderson said.
Turnout is usually low — often no more than 20 percent — for primaries, but officials are reluctant to make predictions.
"I hope there will be long lines," said Secretary of State Glenda Hood, Florida's top elections official. "I hope that people will realize that it is an incredible right and privilege to exercise their vote."
Hood's office is trying to get that message across to voters with radio and television public service announcements, a newspaper advertisement listing revised polling places and even an airplane flying a banner urging people to cast their ballots.
Most seem to have gotten the message, even while busy trying to rebuild homes and lives torn apart by Charley.
"This storm's got everybody's mind on it, I mean, trying to get things back together again," said Port Charlotte secretary Bee Lickliter, 58, who had been without power until Wednesday. "I haven't even thought about the election."
However, Lickliter said she still plans to vote.
So does Carol Marlet, 38, a Punta Gorda postal worker. She said she has been inspired by the government's swift response to Charley, including quick medical treatment for one son who got beaten up while waiting in line for gas, another son who got dehydrated and a sister-in-law stung by a bee.
"I never vote, OK, because I usually don't care," Marlet said. "I'm going to vote because I think that President Bush acted so well."
Bush won't be on the ballot until November, but Marlet insisted she'll vote Tuesday, too, although she then asked "Who's running next week?"
She may have some difficulty finding out. Many candidates have cut back or stopped campaigning to focus on helping storm victims or because of increased work duties, including an insurance agent running for school board, said Colleen Spangler, chairwoman of the DeSoto County Democratic Executive Committee.
She said the storm knocked down campaign signs while power losses cut voters' access to the news media, and that probably will work to the advantage of incumbents.
"It's going to be name recognition," Spangler said.
The storm's path also may play a role in some races, said Charlotte County Republican Executive Committee Chairman Bob Starr. While Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte took the brunt of the storm, the western end of Charlotte County, including Englewood, was virtually unscathed.
Starr predicted that candidates from that area and those who have concentrated their campaigns there will do better.