By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008
With the presidential election days away, Montgomery County officials expect a record voter turnout -- perhaps 85 percent of those registered -- and they are asking the public to prepare for long lines at polling places, especially during hours when workers commute.
Political and election officials say interest is uncommonly high in Tuesday's historic election, with Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the first African American representing a major political party, facing off with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Montgomery hit a new milestone in voter registration: 557,730 people eligible to cast ballots. That is 53,315 more voters than were registered for the primary election less than nine months ago.
Notably, nearly half of the newly registered -- 25,212 -- are voters who will be ages 18 to 29 on Election Day, officials said. A majority of the new names on the rolls are from the western and southwestern areas of the county.
Mildred Williams, 64, a Germantown bus attendant, said she and nine members of her extended family -- children, grandchildren and in-laws -- are part of the registration wave. For her, the decisive issue is economic. She is tired of struggling, she said. "I think Obama understands where we're coming from."
Montgomery's registered voters lean Democratic by a wide margin: 315,129 Democrats, 124,549 Republicans, and the remainder unaffiliated or scattered among other parties, according to state statistics. Of the voters who have registered since the February primary and have affiliated with one of the two major parties, roughly 90 percent have chosen the Democrats.
Despite that numerical disadvantage, Republican leaders say the nomination of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as their ticket's vice presidential candidate has energized the GOP base in Montgomery.
"Her nomination has really excited and energized people to register Republican," said Jim Shalleck, chairman of the county's Republican Party. "Her nomination is the main reason I'm hearing people are registering Republican."
Marjorie Roher, spokeswoman for Montgomery's Board of Elections, said the county expects to best its past turnout. In the 2000 presidential race, 80.8 percent of registered voters cast ballots. In 2004, 80.5 percent did. Based on such history and the new registrations, Roher said, "we are probably looking at an 85 percent-or-better turnout."
Karen Britto, leader of the county's Democrats, said party officials have seen not only rising registration but also a new phenomenon: people who are registered checking in to make sure they are on the rolls. "People are saying, 'This time, I really want to vote,' " she said. "People feel a victory in the air, and I think the turnout will be very high."
Mario Quiroz of CASA of Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group, said the group organized registration efforts in Silver Spring and Baltimore, with perhaps 2,000 applications completed across the state. "There was a lot of enthusiasm," he said.
Diane Hibino, president of the Montgomery County League of Women Voters, which also registered voters, said the surge in interest built throughout the year. She noted an increased interest in absentee ballots and "a lot of interest with the younger voters."
Daniel Sologuren, who grew up in Potomac and attends Boston College, reflects both trends. At 18, he is voting absentee in his home state. Before heading to college, Sologuren attended Winston Churchill High School and was president of the Churchill Republicans.
He turned 18, the voting age, in September.
Despite Maryland's Democratic majority, he said, he is committed to casting his vote and urges friends to "fight the mentality that your vote won't count." He worked on phone banks to promote McCain's candidacy. "I'm really excited," Sologuren said.
County officials said nearly 50,000 absentee ballots had been issued to voters as of Tuesday night. In comparison, 35,156 people voted absentee in 2004.
Absentee ballots can be requested through Election Day by voters who think they cannot make it to a polling place. The deadline for seeking absentee ballots by mail passed Tuesday, but they can be obtained at the Board of Elections, 751 Twinbrook Pkwy. in Rockville.
The newcomers include Andrew Kiwanuka, 18, of Gaithersburg, a college student who works at Starbucks. "I'm motivated because I'm going to be part of a new age of history," said Kiwanuka, a Democrat who said he wants to help elect Obama.
Before Election Day, voters will receive sample ballots by mail, and they are encouraged to fill them out -- even take them to the polls -- so they can vote as efficiently as possible.
"You need to expect that there is going to be a line and know that we are doing our best to keep the line moving as quickly as possible," Roher said.
During peak times at the busiest polling places, as many as 220 people are expected to vote each hour, election officials said. They expect lines to be shortest from 10 a.m. to noon and from 2 to 5 p.m.
Polls will open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. Those in line before 8 p.m. will be able to vote, regardless of the length of the line.