By Bert Eljera
LAS VEGAS – Belinda Gnerre prepared early for a date with friends, but this one included something special – her first vote in a presidential election.
She normally goes shopping and eats at her favorite restaurant, but on this Saturday, her trip to Seafood City was primarily to cast her ballot.
Gnerre – and thousands like her – took advantage of the 10-day early voting schedule to cast their votes, and avoid was is expected to be a big rush on election day.
Election officials say early-voting turn-out was heavy in many sites, with lines forming before the voting booths opened at 8 a.m. in Clark County, the largest county in Nevada.
“It’s nice to bank your vote,” said Gnerre, a home health manager and an eight-year Las Vegas resident. “I may not have the time to do it on election day.”
Under Nevada’s election laws, in Las Vegas, early voting will be from Oct. 20 to Nov. 2 in 88 locations, mostly malls and shopping centers, and community centers.
Absentee ballots have also been mailed out and are due on Nov. 6 as Republicans and Democrats wage a fierce battle to bring in supporters to the polls.
Tracking the absentee votes, however, is problematic because the requests are done by mail and each county sends the requests and accept them.
A local newspaper, the Las Vegas Sun, reported that as of Friday, about 80,000 absentee ballots had been requested statewide. By Republicans estimate, they have a higher proportion of their registered voters requesting absentee ballots than Democrats.
“We’re over-performing registration numbers by 7 points, while Democrats are under-performing theirs by 2 points,” one Republican operative told the Sun. “We’ve effectively erased their voter registration advantage in absentee ballot requests.”
But Democrats contend they have a better “ground game” and possess a clear advantage in getting their supporters into the polling booths.
Republicans also have requested far fewer absentee ballots than they did last year. Two years ago, 60 percent of voters turned out early or by mail. Four years ago, 67 percent of voters turned out early or voted absentee.
A volunteer team, which included four who speak Tagalog fluently, manned the voting booths at Seafood City, according to team-leader Adele Austin.
“There was a long line before we opened at 8 .m.,” she said. “By 2 p.m., more than 700 folks have voted.”
Long lines were also noted at the nearby Boulevard Mall, she said.
“The voters are mixed, with Filipino, Hispanics, blacks, whites and other nationalities,” she said, adding that election materials were available in English, Spanish and Tagalog.
The questions in Tagalog were mostly procedural and centered mostly on the of 1965 use of the machines, said Dallanm Villanueva, one of the Tagalog-speaking volunteers.
“Most Filipinos speak fluent English, so language is not much of a problem,” he said.
For the first time in a federal election in Nevada, ballots are available in Tagalog as mandated by the Voting Rights Act, which provides that if at least 5,000 voters use a common dialect, election materials must be available in that dialect.
In Nevada, Filipino-Americans, estimated at 98,000, comprise the largest Asian minority. At least 30,000 are Las Vegas residents, according to the 2010 census.
Such numbers are attractive to candidates from both parties, and the Mitt Romney and Obama camps have made a play for the Filipino-American vote.
Obama has been more aggressive in that pursuit, with Obama supporters, including the “Filipinos for Obama,” highly visible in and around the Seafood City mall.
The Obama supporters gathered for lunch at a Filipino restaurant and motored down to the mall to cast their votes and urged others to do the same- a scene reminiscent of elections in the Philippines.
That made an impression on Gnerre, and most of those who voted Saturday, saying Obama needs four more years to continue what he has started.
“We need him to turn this country around,” she said.
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