Florida Back in Election Spotlight

Four years after a turbulent post-election drama, Florida returned to the Election Day spotlight Tuesday, with the Democrats looking for payback and Republicans hoping for another victory that could hold the key to the White House.

President Bush and John Kerry's campaigns prepared for the possibility of deja vu in Florida on an Election Day long anticipated since Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore by a mere 537 votes in 2000 to win the White House. The election was finally resolved 36 days later by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"There's been a very big smelly monkey on our back for four years," said Sen. Bob Graham (search), D-Fla. "I am tired of Florida being the laughingstock of America."

Voters also are choosing a successor to Graham, who is retiring after 18 years in the Senate and two terms as governor. Polls showed a deadlocked race between Republican Mel Martinez (search), a former Bush Cabinet member, and Democrat Betty Castor (search), the former president of the University of South Florida and a former state education commissioner.

The campaign was considered pivotal in determining which party controls the Senate. The race was marked by a nasty back-and-forth on Castor's handling of former USF professor Sami Al-Arian, who has been accused of funding a Palestinian terrorist group.

But the Senate battle was overshadowed by Florida's presidential race, which polls showed as tight. Florida's 27 electoral votes have been fiercely contested, with both campaigns spending more than $40 million on TV commercials since March.

Ralph Nader also is on the ballot again. Nader won 97,000 votes in Florida in 2000, drawing the ire of Democrats who believe the majority of those votes would have gone to Gore. Polls show him in single-digits, creating the possibility that he will factor into the election.

Following an election marred by confusing butterfly ballots and hanging chads, the parties have vowed to enforce voting rights vigilantly at polling places with an army of hundreds and possibly thousands of lawyers. Many Florida counties switched to touch-screen voting machines after the debacle in 2004, but activists warned of the possibility of fraud, hacking and computer malfunctions.

Problems cropped up almost immediately after the polls opened, although it was too early to tell how widespread the complaints were.

Ten touch-screen voting machines failed at various precincts in Broward County, officials in Orange County said one poll opened 11 minutes late, and two Bush supporters filed a lawsuit seeking at least $15,000 in damages after claiming they were punched, pushed, shoved and spat upon by Democrats.

Officials with the Election Protection Coalition, a group with volunteer poll monitors, said they documented dozens of instances of voters who had problems. Voters in several counties reported that polling place names, such as a high school, mall or fire station, did not match the street addresses, sending voters shuttling between locations. Election supervisors also were blamed for delayed absentee ballots and mishandled voter registrations.

Some observers said Bush might have a slight edge in Florida because his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, carries high approval ratings for his response to four hurricanes that struck the state during a span of six weeks in August and September.

But Democrats hoped that an impressive push to register new voters and memories of the 2000 debacle would tip the scales toward Kerry. Florida has about 1.5 million new registered voters since 2000.

More than 1.8 million Floridians cast their ballots through early or absentee voting, nearly 21/2 times the number of people who voted early in 2000.