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Record voter turnout a cause to celebrate

Regardless of the outcomes, the real winners in Tuesday's election are the American voters who cast their ballots in what will be remembered as a watershed event.

More Americans voted early than ever before. And long waits at many polling places on Tuesday didn't deter record turnouts in state after state. Reporters used words like "excited" and "amazing" and "history making" to describe the reaction of people waiting in line to exercise their right to vote.

Here in the Keys, we broke all previous records, with more than half the eligible electorate casting votes early. That's a far greater percentage than statewide trends -- about one-third opted to vote early.

Long lines for early voting in Florida's big urban counties last week even prompted Republican Gov. Charlie Crist to extend the hours and accommodate more voters.

Traditionally, more Republicans vote absentee than Democrats, so the governor's executive order was seen as helping Democrats who had conducted massive voter registration drives and counted on heavy turnout to boost their slate.

Turning a blind eye to partisan jockeying for every little advantage speaks well of Crist. Throughout Florida, there are examples of election workers rising to the challenge of meeting record voter registration, long ballots and first-time voters.

America prides itself on its democratic traditions and voting is among the most cherished rights we have.

As much as we like to trumpet that legacy to the rest of the world, however, our own history of low voter turnouts removes our right to brag. Some municipal elections in the Keys have seen fewer than one in four eligible voters even bothering. That's embarrassing.

Voter participation in presidential contests peaked at 64 percent in the 1960 election, which saw Democrat John F. Kennedy beat Republican Richard Nixon in what -- at the time -- was considered a watershed election.

That high water mark for voter involvement will certainly be eclipsed by this year's turnout.

In the 2004 presidential race (when George Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry), Florida's voter turnout was 64.4 percent, which was an increase from the 55 percent seen in the 2000 presidential race.

That's the election when Florida became famous for the Gore vs. Bush Supreme Court decision, deciding who won Florida, and when the phrase "hanging chad" entered America's political lexicon.

We've come a long way, baby. Tuesday's record turnout is itself a reason to celebrate.