In a concrete indication of intense interest in today's election, officials said yesterday that they have issued record-breaking numbers of absentee ballots to Maryland and Virginia residents.
Officials anticipating record turnout asked voters to come to the polls at off-peak times -- midmorning and midafternoon -- to reduce the wait, and they pleaded in advance for the public's understanding.
"The word [today] is going to be patience," said Montgomery County election Director Margaret A. Jurgensen. "There are going to be large, long lines, and we are going to do our best to get people through the lines as quickly as possible."
Virginia's State Board of Elections said yesterday that 175,966 Virginians had submitted absentee ballots and that 241,266 had been requested, surpassing the previous absentee turnout record of 150,414 in 2000.
Maryland has issued more than 132,000 absentee ballots, State Board of Elections official Natasha Walker said yesterday, suggesting that the number of absentee voters in the state this year also will exceed the 96,366 such voters in the 2000 election.
In the District, election officials said that about 15,000 people had requested absentee ballots but could not say how many had voted.
Montgomery's Jurgensen predicted an 80 percent to 90 percent turnout today based on the crush of requests for absentee ballots and an influx of newly registered voters. The number to beat is 85.2 percent county turnout in 1992.
Yesterday, the Montgomery election board was swamped with hundreds of phone calls from frantic voters trying to confirm whether they were registered and where to vote. Many callers got a busy signal, and those who tried the board's Web site found that it also was down for part of the day.
The District and its two closest neighbors may not be battlegrounds, but this presidential campaign has produced heightened levels of security awareness, political commitment and apparent campaign chicanery.
Many D.C. police officers are working 12-hour shifts today, bolstering patrols in city neighborhoods near polling stations, although Chief Charles H. Ramsey has said he was not aware of any specific terror threats tied to Election Day.
Hundreds of Howard University students are traveling to Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania to mobilize voters.
The nonpartisan and nonprofit People for the American Way Foundation is funding the trip for about 450 students, said Howard spokeswoman J.J. Pryor. The students will canvass polling places for evidence of voter intimidation and will encourage everyone to vote.
"We don't want people to be turned away from the polls," Freda Henry, 21, vice president of the Howard University Student Association, said from a packed bus headed to Cleveland. "People can be told anything: 'You don't have the proper ID' or 'You can't bring your child here.' "
In West Virginia's eastern panhandle, Democratic activists were working the phones to undo what they suspected was a Republican-led effort to suppress the vote.
On Sept. 1, several registered voters called the Berkeley County voter registration office in Martinsburg, saying they had received phone calls notifying them that they were not on the rolls or would not, for technical reasons, be allowed to vote.
One resident used caller ID to trace the call to the county Republican Party headquarters.
West Virginia GOP spokeswoman Mary Diamond later told a television interviewer that the calls might have been a misguided effort to "make sure everyone is registered to vote."
Many of those who were called, said Stephen Skinner, a Democratic activist, had ethnic or African American-sounding surnames.
"It's like some yahoo went through and said, 'Let's pick up the people most likely to be Democrats,' " he said. "Or it may be more sophisticated than that."
In Fairfax County, a record number of "emergency absentee" voters cast ballots yesterday, officials said. Such voters have last-minute medical or business problems that would keep them from the polls.
Such voting has been rare in the past, officials said.
Staff writers Lisa Rein, Tim Craig, Del Quentin Wilber, Joshua Partlow, Elizabeth Williamson and Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.