The red and blue paint felt dry even before the first vote was cast. The pollsters had given Maryland and the District to Sen. John F. Kerry, and they said Virginia belonged to President Bush. These weren't battlegrounds; they were foregone conclusions.
But if the outcome seemed so clear going in, then why did so many voters bother to flock to area polling places yesterday and endure huge lines, sometimes for two hours or more?
At Margaret Schweinhaut Senior Center in Silver Spring, voters get assistance from a poll worker in using an electronic voting machine while another voter casts her ballot.
(Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
In the District, more than 30 people slept on a sidewalk outside one Ward 8 precinct to be among the first to vote. In Fairfax, lines of voters snaked through the halls of Greenbriar West Elementary School during what was supposed to be the slow period of midmorning. In New Carrollton, one voter compared the long wait to standing in line for a ride at Disney World.
Across the country, the huge get-out-the-vote effort delivered an epic day at the polls. A record number of registered voters produced long lines everywhere, and passion for politics was the order of the day. New voters, minority voters and, especially, young voters turned out in large numbers, evidence of an energized electorate.
Voters said they were driven to the polls by the issues that resonated in the presidential campaign and by the belief that a single vote could count in a country divided.
"It's almost palpable, the attention, anticipation and the interest," said Scott Mlynek, 31, a portfolio manager at Fifth Third Bank in Cincinnati. "People you would never expect to talk about politics are paying attention."
Officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District said they expected final figures to show a near-record turnout. "I have never seen it this busy at this precinct, and I have been voting here for 40 years," said Bob MacKinnon, 75, who voted at Charles Carroll Middle School in Prince George's County.
Although some local races and issues helped lure voters to the polls, the presidential race was clearly the big draw. Few in the lines were ready to accept that their votes meant less because the electoral college votes were not highly contested. They talked of high stakes and of civic duties. They listed motivations that included the war in Iraq, the threat of terrorism, the future of local schools, gas prices, the flu vaccine shortage. They spoke of sending a clear message, exercising their rights and taking part in history.
"Regardless of whether or not it makes a difference, I still want to be heard," said Desiree Lackonsingh, 20, a Montgomery College student who voted for the first time in Silver Spring.
Heather Pearl, 25, said she waited in a 40-minute line in Fairfax because she felt a responsibility to vote according to her conscience -- even if Virginia was probably Bush's, with or without her ballot.
"I think it's never safe to assume that someone else is going to do the job for you," said Pearl, a substitute teacher.
Said Fatima Davis, who voted for Kerry at Metropolitan Baptist Church in the District's Shaw neighborhood: "The point is, I was a part. I was one of many."
Past presidential elections have shown that states where the outcome is predictable do not necessarily have low turnouts, and the Washington region provided ample supporting evidence yesterday.
"If you look at history, it doesn't make a huge amount of difference whether it's a battleground state or not," said Allan J. Lichtman, a professor of history at American University who specializes in elections. "Turnout trends are generally national."