Jacksonville's Duval County was one of 12 counties that offered early voting Sunday, and on a brisk, cloudless day, Democrats tried to take full advantage with a last-minute push among churchgoing black voters known as "Souls to the Polls."
On the city's north side, the Rev. Jeffrey Rumlin ended a two-hour service at Dayspring Baptist Church by reminding his African-American congregation of about 300 people that others died so that blacks could gain the right to vote.
"If voting was not important, then why are some people trying to stop us from voting?" Rumlin asked as parishioners chimed in with "Amen" and "that's right." The pastor's father, Isaiah Rumlin, who's president of the Jacksonville branch of the NAACP, made a similar pitch at the start of the service.
Worshippers were given fans that showed side-by-side pictures of Charlie Crist and Barack Obama and the phrase "partners in progress," and a list of the county's 18 early voting sites. They were also offered tickets to a free fish fry in a parking lot next door to the nearest early voting site at a branch library.
"It's not because we're trying to buy a vote. It's trying to encourage voting," said Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, who passed out the fish fry tickets and addressed the congregation as the service ended. "I can't tell you who to vote for, but I'd certainly rather be Scott-free."
Gibson criticized Scott's decision to cut public school spending in his first year in office, his refusal to accept federal money for high speed rail and lack of enthusiasm for expanding Medicaid in Florida. She also predicted that if Crist is elected, he will again make it easier for ex-felons to get their civil rights back, an issue that resonates strongly among many black voters.
The pace of voting was steady on a clear and sunny 60-degree afternoon where the only competition for voters' attention was a Jaguars football game.
Christie Thomas, 38, an administrative assistant at a hospital, joined the "Souls to the Polls" effort, and voted for Crist at the Highlands library branch.
"He's for the middle class," Thomas said, adding of Scott: "He's for the upper class. He doesn't look out for the little people."
Thomas is an example of the so-called "sporadic voter" Democrats have been targeting to improve turnout over the 2010 election. A lifelong Democrat, Thomas said she did not vote in the 2010 race for governor and voted early because she wasn't about to make the same mistake twice.
"I was working late," she said. "By the time I got to the polls, they were closed."
Ron Covington, 65, a retired commercial railroad manager for CSX Corp., also voted early for Crist at the library and wore an "I voted" sticker on the lapel of his winter coat as he left the polls.
"Four years of Rick Scott is enough," Covington said.
Another factor likely to boost black turnout in Jacksonville is the presence on the ballot of U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, who has a serious opponent, Republican Glo Smith, but is heavily favored to win a 12th consecutive term in Congress. Brown was scheduled to visit a half-dozen black churches on Sunday to help ramp out the get-out-the-vote effort.
Duval Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland estimated that turnout so far is 3 to 5 percentage points higher than it was in 2010, but he won't know for sure if the total turnout will be higher until after the polls close Tuesday.