After enduring an epic advertising war and months of anticipation, Marylanders on Tuesday hit the polls for an historic opportunity to cast their votes on several ballot initiatives that could influence the state’s social and economic identity.
Two of the big-ticket items are issues that no other state in the country has approved at the ballot box: allowing gay marriage and extending in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants who meet certain conditions.
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Marylanders were also voting on whether they want a Las Vegas-style casino in Prince George’s County, as well as table games — such as black jack and roulette — at the state’s five previously authorized slots casinos.
The fourth major ballot measure: whether to preserve the state’s newly redrawn Congressional map, which was designed partly to unseat longtime Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Frederick).
As people starting heading to the polls after work Tuesday evening, some found long lines to vote on weighty ballot measures in a Presidential election year. All day, from the time the polls opened at 7 a.m. through the chilly mid-day, elections officials across the state said that voting proceeded smoothly, but required patience.
Daneen Banks, a spokeswoman for Prince George’s County Board of Elections, said that the longest wait in the county was an hour, as people headed to work in the morning. As of 3 p.m. county officials reported that nearly 194,000 voters had cast ballots, or 35 percent of registered voters. Another 12 percent participated in early voting last week.
In Montgomery County, election officials said the wait was about 30 minutes during peak hours at most polling sites. In Germantown and Bethesda, the waits were about 90 minutes, according to Margie Roher, a spokeswoman for the county elections board.
At Bethesda’s Westbrook elementary school, for instance, it took a full hour to vote in the late morning, as opposed to previous elections when people have rarely been forced to wait for more than 10 minutes. Elections officials attributed the long waits to the lengthy ballots.
Marlene Shaffer, a 73-year-old Potomac resident, said one of the main reasons she came to vote Tuesday was to uphold same-sex marriage.
“I think it’s fair,” she said at the Potomac Community Center. “It’s not discriminatory.”
Salvatore Zagarella, a 34-year-old North Potomac resident, said he felt like he wanted to be on the right side of history. “If you vote no, you’re going to be wrong in 50 years,” he said, as he walked out of his polling site, Shady Grove Conference Center.
At Northwest High School in Germantown, Chang Wang, 42-year-old software engineer, said he supported allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition. “I think we should give them a chance,” Wang said. “If they follow the law and do everything right, that is the right thing to do.”
But Wang did not vote for gay marriage. “For me, no. Sorry,” he said. He doesn’t think the word marriage should apply to gay unions, though he supports civil unions and other efforts.
His biggest surprise move: Wang, a non-affiliated voter who chose President Obama four years ago, this time went with GOP candidate Mitt Romney.
“I don’t think (Obama) did what he promised he would do,” Wang said, adding, “I don’t like big government.”
In Prince George’s County, Sandra Bossard, 62 said she opposed the state’s Dream Act.
“I know young people who are citizens who have difficulty getting into college,” said Bossard, who was voting at the Kettering Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro. “We need to support our own and take care of our own.”
A Washington Post poll in October strongly suggested that Maryland voters are more than ready to greenlight same-sex marriage and a form of the Dream Act. The poll found that likely voters favored gay marriages 52 percent to 43 percent. So far, gay marriage in the U.S. has been a right granted only by courts and legislatures, not by popular vote.
Thirteen other states have adopted a version of the Dream Act, but Maryland voters could be the first to approve it at the ballot box. The Post poll found that 59 percent of likely voters support in-state tuition at public colleges for undocumented immigrants, while 35 percent oppose it.
Voters are tackling these four issues this election cycle for different reasons. Lawmakers are required by the Maryland constitution to put forward any gambling expansion to a statewide vote. Although gay marriage, the state’s Dream Act, and the new congressional map were approved by the state legislature, opponents gathered enough signatures for a petition so voters could re-examine the decisions directly.
Hispanic voters in Montgomery and Prince George’s came out to the polls in heavy support of Maryland’s Dream Act.
Francisco Javier Mercado, 42, said the Dream Act ballot initiative inspired him to vote for his first time. Although a citizen for many years, the Silver Spring resident who is a native of El Salvador said he hoped the Dream Act would beat back what he believes is an increasing anti-immigrant sentiment.
“God gives us this freedom to contribute to change,” he said with his 7-year-old daughter next to him at the Holiday Park Senior Center in Silver Spring.
“(The Dream Act) is another opportunity for the students that want to better themselves,” he said. “We can’t deny them an education.”
In Prince George’s County, Ana Cortez, a native of El Salvador who lives in Hyattsville, said she was voting to support Maryland’s Dream Act, but was against same-sex marriage.
“Many young people who grew up here want to have an opportunity to study after they finish high school but they can’t because they don’t have papers,” she said, standing in a line lone outside an elementary school in Langley Park, home to the largest concentration of Hispanics in the Washington region, according to recent Census data. “We have to help them make their dreams a reality.”
But Cortez was voting no on the marriage issue. “I believe the bible says marriage should be between a man and a woman,” she said. “I believe God doesn’t support question 6.”
She’ll be voting for President Obama. Only one issue left her undecided: whether to whether to expand gambling. “Some people say it will increase money for education and if that’s the case it would be good,” she said. “But other people say that’s not going to happen.”
The gambling issue has dominated Maryland’s airwaves. An unprecedented $90 million campaign flooded voters’ televisions this year with almost non-stop ads, as each side fought over how much gambling money would end up in schools’ coffers. Passage of the ballot measure, known as Question 7, would generate an estimated $150 million a year in additional education funding within a few years, according to state legislative analysts. Critics contend that “no new money is required for education.”
Unlike Cortez, Mike Tomlinson, a 35-year-old Germantown resident who teaches in Loudoun County, was certain that he was not going to vote for gambling. He did the research. He knew where he stood. “From the research I’ve done it just didn’t seem like the money was gonna go where they said it would go,” Tomlinson said of the gambling effort, while stopped in the parking lot of Spark Matsunaga Elementary. “I didn’t like their arguments.”
Judy Leventhal, a 41-year-old mother of three, said she also voted against the gambling referendum because she didn’t want to encourage what she considers a vice that takes advantage of lower-income residents.
“I see Atlantic City,” she said. “You can tell some people are just going there to waste all of their money, when they should be using it for food.”
But Donna Lammie, a 28-year-old nursing student at Universities at Shady Grove, said she is supporting the measure because it would stimulate the local economy.
“It’s going to bring much money to the state,” said Lammie, a Montgomery Village resident who voted at Watkins Mill Elementary School. “Why should we say no to that?”
Margaret Lamboi, a naturalized citizen originally from Sierra Leone, said she voted “Yes”on all the referenda questions as she emerged from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George’s. “Of course I voted for [the gambling expansion],” she said, before adding her worry that Marylanders will simply cross the border and play table games elsewhere. “If we don’t get the money, who’s going to get it? West Virginia.”
Steve Sahm, a Germantown office manager, is a registered Republican and his votes today cut across both party lines. He voted against GOP candidate Mitt Romney. But he also voted against the new Congressional district map, which had been designed and approved by the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature for that party’s benefit.
“It’s gerrymandering. It’s craziness,” Sahm said of the new map.
He supported gay marriage, as well as the gambling measure for a simple reason: “More tax dollars,” he said.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who has pushed the gambling and same-sex marriage measures, showed up at Kettering Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro at about 9 a.m. to thank voters waiting in line to cast ballots.
“It’s finally here,” he said of Election Day.
Lynh Bui, Robert McCartney, Miranda S. Spivack, John Wagner, Luz Lazo and Victor Zapana contributed to this report.