Throughout Area, Voters Still Turning Out in Droves

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 2008

Piers Wood, 66, had already made plans to be on his sailboat next week, but he didn't want to miss his chance to vote in Tuesday's historic election.

So Wood, who is retired from the military, went to the Mason Government Center in Annandale to vote by absentee ballot. He left four hours later -- 3 hours, 59 minutes and 25 seconds later, to be exact.

"No one was being rude," he said. "I was amazed at how cool-headed people were."

In Virginia and all across the Washington region, tens of thousands of people spent another day yesterday standing in line to vote by absentee ballot for John McCain or Barack Obama in numbers that far surpass those of the 2004 presidential race.

"Is this turnout normal? Absolutely not," Fairfax County Registrar Rokey W. Suleman II said. "We expected an increase, but not this large."

In vote-rich Fairfax, nearly 79,000 of 680,000 registered voters had cast a ballot by mail or in person at one of eight locations as of Thursday. Suleman said he expects that number to exceed 125,000 by Election Day.

Election officials are anticipating huge lines today, the last Saturday before Election Day.

In Virginia, the last day to vote by absentee ballot in person is today. In Maryland and the District, absentee voting continues through Election Day.

Election officials anticipate record turnout Tuesday when the country will elect either the nation's first black president or first female vice president. They estimate 10 to 20 percent of voters in the region will likely vote by absentee ballot.

"The fact is there is so much interest in this election," said Marjorie Roher, a spokeswoman for the Board of Elections in Montgomery County, where about 1,000 people are voting a day. "They don't want to stand in line on Election Day."

In Virginia, nearly 312,000 voters had cast absentee ballots in person or by mail as of Thursday, compared with 222,000 cast in 2004. In Maryland, more than 218,000 people had voted as of Thursday, almost 100,000 more than in 2004.

In the District, absentee voting was moved to another floor to accommodate the large numbers of residents who have flooded the elections office in recent days. About 8,000 people had voted in person by midday Friday, and an additional 16,000 requested ballots by mail that need to be postmarked by Election Day.

"Even when the lines were long, we really haven't found people are upset," said Dan Murphy, a spokesman for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. "Most people are excited to vote."

Waiting times across the region in the past week have varied from a few minutes to a few hours, but most were 30 to 60 minutes.

Wood, of Falls Church, who read a book while he was waiting to vote, said the long waits might discourage younger voters. But registrars said voters of all ages seem to take the waiting in stride, armed with the knowledge that they were avoiding possibly even longer lines Tuesday. Some passed the time by chatting with fellow voters. Others showed up yesterday in Halloween costumes.

Loudoun County General Registrar Judy Brown said her staff has accommodated several hundred people a day with waiting times averaging 10 to 20 minutes.

"It's busy. It's a steady stream. We're doing the best we can," she said. "I don't think it's awful. If you don't have the experience of waiting, you'll never remember the experience."

Millions of voters in 33 states have been able to cast ballots in person or by mail in early voting with no excuse.

But in Virginia, Maryland and the District, voters can only vote by absentee ballot if they have an excuse for why they cannot make it to the polls on Election Day, such as they will be out of town or are unable to stand in lines for long periods of time.

A proposal on the ballot this year would allow early voting in Maryland.

Murphy said many voters arriving at the District's elections office are confused about the law.

"A lot of people are not necessarily aware," he said. "But we're not turning people away."

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