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More voters head to the polls early this year -- up 44% and 40% from the past

Early voting closed across the state on Sunday and a record 361,615 voters cast their ballots before primary election day this year, higher than the two previous primary election cycles.

Compared to the 2008 primary, when county ballots were filled with mostly local races, early voting is up 44 percent (from 251,110.) Compared to the 2006 primary, when the headline races were two hotly contested primary battles for governor -- between Republicans Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher and Democrats Jim Davis and Rod Smith -- early voting is up 40 percent (from 258,917.)

Election officials caution, however, not to make too much of this early voting surge. For one, they don't include the number of absentee ballots cast, and they don't generally mean there's going to be a corresponding increase in voter turnout. Instead, it's usually a sign that more voters are choosing the convenience of early voting over the rigidity of heading to their precinct on Election Day.

The move toward early voting, however, could play a pivotal role in the outcome. Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott, for example, is counting on absentee ballot commitments and early voters to push him past rival Bill McCollum. They're hoping that people picked him before McCollum's latest round of negative attacks and his drop in the polls started taking hold.

Early voting results for local counties:

Broward: 23,216
Dade: 32,877
Monroe: 1,599

Hernando: 3,555
Hillsborough: 24,161
Pasco: 10,388
Pinellas: 2,796