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?
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."
In the District, where 85 percent of voters chose Al Gore in 2000, there were no massive get-out-the-vote drives like those happening in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. It made no difference, though; voter turnout in the District was expected to approach record levels yesterday, as it did when about 70 percent of registered voters went to the polls four years ago.
"Everyone knows Kerry's going to get 80 percent of D.C., so I'm not aware of any real get-out-the-vote efforts. They're really not necessary," said Jeffrey Norman, treasurer of the D.C. Democratic Party. "We are the most non-battleground state in the whole country, but a lot of people vote and want to feel part of the nation at election time."
Many local activists who might otherwise have been handing out literature at polling stations cast absentee ballots before yesterday and hitched rides to such places as Philadelphia and Cleveland, where their activism might have a greater impact, according to Democratic and Republican officials.
"I just tried to get someone to cover a precinct, and I found out they were in Florida," said Betsy Werronen, chairman of the D.C. Republican Committee. "So we have people covering precincts, just not in D.C."
The 2000 election demonstrated the difference between the popular and electoral vote -- a lesson that many voters said made them more eager to cast ballots than before. The popular vote, they said, has become powerfully symbolic -- even if the electoral votes actually decide the presidency.
"You want to get that popular vote up," said Leah Daniels, 24, a used-book store manager from Capitol Hill who waited in line for an hour to vote. "Every vote counts."
Some of those aligned with the minority party -- Democrats in Virginia and Republicans in the District and Maryland -- said they felt even more of a duty to vote to let people know that they do, in fact, exist and should not be brushed aside.
"That makes it that much more important," said Rebecca Conner, 40, a child-care provider from Waldorf who said she voted for Bush. "I don't think I'm going to let what other people think sway my opinion. I'm going to express my opinion."
Security at the polls became an issue in the weeks leading to the election, as some worried about possible terrorist strikes. But most polling places showed no signs of increased security yesterday, and the length of the lines was the more pressing concern.
Some voters -- such as Furmon and Tracy Jordan of Fairfax -- found enormous lines early in the morning and decided to come back to vote later, only to encounter waits almost as long when they returned.
For many, the lines weren't so much an inconvenience as they were encouraging signs of an engaged electorate.
"I've never in my life seen so many people voting," said Sherry Kelly-Williams, 44, who has voted in every election in Alexandria since she was 18. "It shows that everyone is excited, everyone is participating. And especially as a black woman, that's good to see. We fought so hard for these rights."
Jamie Yang said she had been looking forward to this election for years. The 32-year-old Fairfax resident moved to the United States with her family from Korea when she was 18, and she became a citizen three years ago.
"I like the fact that I can participate in this kind of system," Yang said. "I was anxious to do this -- it's the first time I've had the right. I really believe I can help make some changes, however little it might be."