MANATEE -- The political parties have bickered for months over practically everything involving the upcoming election, but they agree on one thing: People are going to turn out to vote.
"My guess is much higher than normal turnout here and in other places," predicted Kathleen King, chairman of the Republican Party of Manatee, and secretary of the Republican Party of Florida.
Her Democratic counterpart agreed: "From what we've seen in Manatee County, we think it will be a very good turnout, particularly with Hispanic and other minor
ity communities," said David Fernandez, chairman of the Manatee County Democratic Party.
Others predicted the equivalent of an electoral tsunami.
"We're predicting a huge turnout in Florida, absolutely huge," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the Florida League of Women Voters. She said efforts by the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature seen as trying to suppress the vote "has really ignited some citizen determination that their voices will be heard."
Early voting began at 7 a.m. Saturday, and lines snaked for almost two blocks outside Manatee County's only early voting site, at the Manatee Supervisor of Elections office, 600 301 Boulevard W., Suite 108, Bradenton.
The wait was at least 90 minutes, those in line said.
Early voting continues through Nov. 3, with election day set for Nov. 6.
Already, thousands have voted via absentee ballot: Manatee County has mailed out about 48,819 absentee ballots, and 29,319 had already been returned to the elections office by midday Saturday, according to elections office figures.
Last week, a steady stream of voters filed through the lobby to request absentee ballots.
Or, they just came in and filled them out right there, then turned them in, said Bob Sweat, Manatee supervisor of elections.
"Oh my gosh, it's just unbelievable," he said.
By Friday, the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections office had sent out 78,538 absentee ballots, with 47,553 already returned, according to Ron Turner, chief of staff.
That compares to 58,494 absentee ballots mailed out during the entire 2008 general election, Turner said.
"There has been a significant increase in requests for vote-by-mail ballots since the last presidential election," he said.
Turner said the Sarasota elections' office "has been very busy handling vote-by-mail requests and anticipates being very busy during early voting."
Part of the reason so many have asked for absentee ballots is that this year's is the biggest ballot anyone can recall.
Some of the ballots, such as those in the Miami-Dade area, run 11-16 pages, said Macnab.
"In parts of the state, they have to translate into Spanish, Creole and English," she said. "I've had phone calls from people who are afraid they're missing pages."
Manatee's ballot runs longer than any that Sweat can recall in his 28 years as supervisor, he has said.
He and Kathy Dent, Sarasota's supervisor of elections, suggested a few things voters can do to ensure a smooth-running election:
n Read a sample ballot before you go to the polls and mark it with your choices so you can vote quickly.
n If you're voting by absentee ballot, be sure to sign the outside of the sealed envelope, and return it to the supervisor of elections office, in person or by mail.
n If you plan to vote at the polls, you must present both picture and signature identification, such as such as a driver's license or a passport.
n If you prefer not to stand in line, you can still request an absentee ballot until the deadline of 5 p.m. Oct. 31.
n If you have problems, call your local elections office for help; Manatee's is at 941-741-3823.
Said the League of Women Voters' Macnab: "It is our hope it's a smooth and fair, and transparent election, one the state can be proud of."
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.