-- Even the Election Day veterans, the grayheads who have worked the polls at the Lonnie Burten Recreation Center since 1992, got it wrong this time.

"Did you bring a good book?" one of the election officials asked lawyer John Gibbon, a white Democrat from the suburbs, when he showed up as a volunteer monitor shortly before 6:30 a.m. "Because this is the projects, and nobody comes, until maybe later."

"And then all of a sudden, there were lots of people," Gibbon said, "and they all wanted to vote, and they stood in these long lines, and they were very patient. I have to say, it's been very heartening."

Throughout the morning -- and despite heavy rain -- lines up to 75 people long wound through the rec center gym, past the sign-in table, past the bleachers where the toddlers clattered around, toward the 20 polling machines. There, the residents of Outhwaite Estates, the church ladies and the hip-hoppers in their do-rags, the workers on their lunch breaks in their mechanics' jumpsuits and hospital scrubs, hunched over and frowned at Cuyahoga County's punch-card ballot. Kids of 18 and 19 wheeled in on their bikes after school. Many voters said they found the ballot confusing and time-consuming, and several held their completed ballots toward the ceiling lights, inspecting them for dreaded chad. The equally dreaded Republican challengers, who had vowed to hover to prevent fraud, never materialized.

By noontime, Tanya Brown had arrived with her tattered manila folder and her list. The president of her tenants association, she was in charge of 54 registered voters in her building, and she had come to make sure they had voted. "Only 15 of them have not yet come in!" she said triumphantly, after inspecting the publicly available list that Ohio law requires be updated at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Election Day. "I haven't seen it like this," she said of turnout. "Mmm, mmm, mmm."

She glanced at the line and decided she herself would wait to vote, intending to go get the rest of her neighbors first. "I don't think it will be hard" to convince them, she said. "This vote, this year, it is important, very important. This is life, life or death."

By 12:40, the site had its own ersatz exit poll: Lonnie Burten, the polling place for three precincts, had run out of "I Voted Today" stickers. "Now what does this tell you?" said Boris Komrovsky, an election board official working at the site. "I called the central office," which oversees this heavily Democratic county's 584 polling locations, with 1,009,000 registered voters, "and they ran out of Voted Today stickers."

"On this day," predicted Edgar Taylor, a cook who watched "Meet the Press" as a boy, "Kerry is gonna win Ohio, and it is gonna be because black people, and new black voters, came out to vote. Of course, we want him to win everywhere else, too."

This has been the electoral strategy all along: Let Republican strategist Karl Rove have his evangelicals and his NASCAR dads and his security moms. The Democrats were relying on a massive registration and turnout drive, run mostly by America Coming Together (ACT), the independent organization that may have poured as much as $125 million into building a sophisticated voter database, registering millions in the swing states, then maintaining contact with those voters by joining old-fashioned shoe-leather canvassing to newfangled Palm Pilot biographical data. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, ACT concentrated for months on African Americans, hoping for heavy turnout in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and in Cleveland and Columbus to offset the more conservative and rural areas in both states.

In the Buckeye State, ACT registered 85,000 new voters, and its partner group, America Votes, reported an additional 215,000, according to ACT's Ohio spokesman Jess Goode. Volunteers and paid staffers began canvassing in September 2003 and knocked 3.7 million times on doors. The great unknown, into the late evening, remained whether enough of those new voters would actually vote.

At Lonnie Burten (named for a deceased city council member), even with its highly mobile population, the voting rolls for the three precincts increased by nearly 25 percent, to 2,440. When the polls closed, the official tally showed 1,153 had cast ballots, below a 50 percent turnout, but "much more than I've seen in the last 15 years," said poll worker Janice Hairston. "These numbers just blew my head back. I was totally shocked."

Several months ago canvassers signed up Tracine Day, 31, who had never voted before. Then "they kept after me," she said, laughing. "They must have called me a bunch of times over the weekend." Every time she heard a knock at the door the last couple of days, she figured it was them. She was, she said, "voting for change. We gotta get Bush out of there."

Chenelle Harris, 20, mother of a 2-week-old baby girl, also voted for the first time. "It felt weird," she said. "I felt scared. I was afraid I was gonna mess up," and she asked a poll worker for help understanding how to select judges. "I know it's important to vote -- my mother always says so." Cathyrn McCray, 48, laid off from her job cutting potatoes for supermarket convenience packs, wanted safer schools. "My grandson is 8, and I have my daughter walk him even though it's five minutes. You can get shot in five minutes."

On the day America finally gathered to vote in flesh and blood, citizens here were proud and informed and determined to sort politics out their own way. Home health care aide Princella Holder, 39, came at 9 a.m., had to leave to see a client before she could vote, and came back afterward. "I really couldn't wait to vote for more taxes for these schools," she said, referring to a ballot issue that would permit a tax increase to help hire back more than 1,400 teachers laid off for lack of funds. "And I really wanted to vote on the gay marriage issue," she said, referring to a ballot referendum that would amend the state constitution to prohibit it. "The Bible says Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." Did that mean she supported President Bush? "Oh, no!" said Holder. "Certainly not. Kerry all the way."

Also swept away was an effort by state Republicans to challenge 20,000 newly registered Democrats, mostly in this county. Legal skirmishing finally ended in the middle of the night, when a three-judge federal appeals panel ruled both GOP and Democratic challengers could be present inside the polls. The battle had enraged Democrats, who claimed that Republicans were attempting to intimidate voters. Republicans said they were trying to ensure a fair election by preventing fraud.

But at Lonnie Burten, as at many other sites across the city, the Republican challengers never showed up, although a slew of volunteers from various voter protection groups milled around all day, many bused in from non-swing states. Komrovsky, a Republican who said he originally had applied for his job with the county Board of Elections because he feared fraud, said he had seen none. About a hundred provisional ballots were issued to those whose names did not show up on the rolls, mostly because they had moved around in the project, he said, "but everybody voting is supposed to be voting."

"They ain't sending no challengers," said Dwayne Browder, in his Browder Boxing team jacket. "They would be fools to send them in here. It would be like trying to challenge Muhammad Ali's combination, when he hit you 10 times and you didn't move and the referee said you had enough. [Bush] knows he ain't getting anywhere here. He stayed out in the townships with the $200,000 incomes and the $150,000 homes. He didn't drive those Bush-Cheney buses in no inner city."

At 7:30, a worker called out -- "The polls are now officially closed!" -- and that left the last voter bent over his ballot, as the other machines were folded up and put away around him. He was Ledon Goggins, 54, first-time voter. Why now?

"We got to get Bush out of there," he said. "If Kerry wins, I guess it'll be good I did it. And if he doesn't, well, I made my voice heard."

The Lonnie Burten Recreation Center in Cleveland was one of many polling places with long waits. Voters, including many newly recruited, waited in lines as long as 75 people.By 12:40 p.m. on Election Day, the Lonnie Burten Recreation Center in Cleveland ran out of "I Voted Today" stickers.