Early voting shrinks in Florida, absentee balloting grows
* Registered Democrats ahead in ballots cast early
* Legislature cut early voting days
By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Fla., Nov 5 (Reuters) - Florida voters cast fewer early ballots in the 2012 presidential election than in 2008, but they submitted more absentee ballots than they did four years ago, according to statewide elections figures released on Monday.
Overall, 37 percent of Florida's 11.9 million registered voters have already cast their ballots. Excluding 300 ballots cast in Orlando on Sunday when voting was extended due to a bomb scare that temporarily shut down polling the day before, registered Democrats had cast 159,612 more votes than registered Republicans through Sunday.
Opinion polls showed Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney running neck and neck in Florida, where a mere 537 votes decided the 2000 presidential election in George W. Bush's favor.
The early voting period in Florida ended on Saturday, though voters were still submitting absentee ballots at election supervisors' offices on Sunday and Monday.
The state's Republican-led legislature cut the number of early voting days nearly in half this year, leading to long lines where voters had to wait up to 8 hours and complaints that the change in voting rules was part of a Republican effort to suppress Democratic votes.
Republican Governor Rick Scott rejected a call last week to extend early voting by a day.
The data suggests the changes did put a damper on in-person voting at the early polling sites. Florida voters cast 250,605 fewer ballots at those sites in the 2012 presidential election than in 2008.
Democrats, who typically make up a large proportion of early voters, managed a 246,930 edge over Republicans in the voting at early balloting sites. That was about half the margin in 2008 when Democrats led in early voting by almost half a million ballots.
Republicans have the edge in absentee voting - 87,318 more Republican ballots were turned in than Democratic ballots by Saturday. Absentee voting had exceeded the 2008 totals by 160,216 ballots by Saturday.
All told, the battleground state entered the final day of voting before the election with 4.42 million votes cast compared with 4.51 million in 2008 - a drop of 90,389.
The total number of registered voters in Florida has risen by 6.1 percent since the last presidential election to 11.9 million.