LIMA, Ohio -- At least 1.6 million Ohioans have cast early ballots this election year, a sum on track to top figures from four years ago, state officials said Saturday.
In addition to the more than 495,000 residents who have voted at designated voting centers acros
s the state, 85.5 percent of the more than 1.3 million absentee ballots mailed to voters have been filled out and sent back, according to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted. "Voting has gone smoothly in Ohio, and we expect that trend to continue through the close of the polls on Election Day," Husted said in a statement Saturday.
In Allen County, which encompasses Lima, just shy of 13,000 voters had cast early ballots either in person or by mail, and local officials anticipated the numbers would easily pass 14,000 by the end of Monday.
"I have spent the last four years preparing for this weekend and this election," said Ken Terry, the county's director of the Board of Elections. Four years ago on the final weekend of early voting, he said, slower machines and fewer workers meant that some people stood for three hours in a line that stretched from his counter on the basement level of the local courthouse out to the parking lot. "It's like holding a football game and not selling any tickets," Terry said. "You never know how many people are going to show up."
Just before 11 a.m Saturday, at least 28 people were waiting in line, and over the course of the next hour, dozens more voters arrived. Mothers enticed their school-aged children to stand in line with cups of McDonald’s hot chocolate. Other mothers called their voting-age children to ensure that they, too, planned to stop by. Several elderly couples walked in -- some hand-in-hand -- but at least two impatient husbands were seen waiting for their wives in warm idling vehicles.
Several voters said it was the first time they had cast an early vote, and most said they first learned of the option by watching the local television news. Others said they received several reminders in the mail.
"It’s different for me to do this, because I've been going to the polls since I was 18, and I thought it was part of democracy to go on the actual day you were supposed to go," said Richard Warren, who said he was in his 70s. But Warren and his wife, Ann, plan to leave Sunday to visit their grandchildren in Cincinnati, so the couple waited almost half an hour in line. They both said they voted for Romney, but Ann Warren said it didn't matter who wins, "because they’re going to have to do something big, because people are so upset with how things are going in Washington."
Ellaphine Napier of Lima said she felt compelled to cast her first early ballot after seeing President Obama in town on Friday. "I think yesterday encouraged me a whole lot," she said. "I appreciated what he had to say and the diversity of the crowd. And it made me realize that this isn’t a Democratic thing, or a Republican thing, it's a people thing. I waited two hours in line to see him yesterday, I can wait a few more minutes today to vote."
Amber Young cast her first ballot ever after waiting 40 minutes, and said she voted for Obama: "I think he needed our help, so I came out to vote." Her mother, who declined to give her name, said the family was middle class, "and I don't relate to the other guy."
Trisha Fletcher, 45, spent more than 45 minutes at the polls not to cast her ballot -- she did that on the first day of early voting, Oct. 2 -- but instead to ensure that her son would show up to vote. "I've been out here before, and the line was all the way down the parking lot," she said. This year, she voted early for Obama "so I could get it over with."
Allen County skews Republican, and several of Mitt Romney's supporters were also in line. Bob and Connie Warniment drove 15 minutes from nearby Dephos to cast early ballots for the Republican nominee after their daughter encouraged them to vote early so they could get to their cabin in Michigan a few days earlier than planned. "I'd rather wait until the end and decide who to vote for," Bob said, but he thought this year that the early option was a good one. "The working people might go for that option because the lines are long, and they might to get up earlier to vote," Connie Warniment said.
Local Boy Scouts helped several poll workers load ballot sheets and "Vote Here" signs into their cars so they can begin setting up polling sites across Lima for Tuesday. And voting on Election Day should still prove popular: Despite the patience exhibited by most voters, some refused to put up with the rush. One woman took the elevator down to the basement-level election office and turned back into the elevator when she saw the crowd. "Line’s too long," she said. "I’ll just wait till Tuesday."