Across state, voters come in under wire

Deadline: Determined to make their votes count, thousands endure long lines on last day of registration for the election.

Election 2004

October 13, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

The election was still three weeks away, but these voters already had the look of victory.

Whether they were registering for the first time or for the first time in 30 years, whether they expected to vote for President Bush or for Sen. John Kerry, the people crowding into the Anne Arundel County elections office yesterday had, on the last possible day, beaten the deadline to be able to vote Nov. 2.

It wasn't easy. First they had to find the nondescript county office building on Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie, then circle a few times to park, push open two heavy doors and climb 20 steep steps to the Board of Elections office. And then there was the line.

No matter. In Glen Burnie and throughout Maryland yesterday, in numbers unseen in decades, thousands of people turned out to make sure they could vote on Election Day. The state's voter rolls are up more than 10 percent this year. In Anne Arundel alone, more than 8,500 new voters have signed up since September, an additional 3,000 registrations still await processing, and yesterday, a line snaked around the hallway to the office most of the day.

Across the country, it's the same picture: Voter registration is up by hundreds of thousands of people in big states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, prompted by such issues as the war in Iraq, the controversial election result in Florida four years ago, and a sense of urgency that experts say makes this election the most emotional one since 1968.

"Everybody and their brother and sister is out there registering voters on college campuses and in churches," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. But, he added, "How many will show up? That's the $64,000 question.

"This reminds me of 1968 or 1980. ... The issues are so big people are going to turn out. But how will they vote? That's the other $64,000 question."

Some think this election may even interrupt a long-term decline in voter participation.

"If I were a betting person, I would bet you're going to see many more people come to the polls" than in 2000, said Tami Buhr, research coordinator for the Vanishing Voter Project at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "Some of them will be new voters, first-time voters. That's where we're seeing the real increase in interest this time around."

In Howard County, where hundreds of people registered yesterday, Christopher Simmonds, 20, of Elkridge signed up for the first time. He and his friends and roommates have been arguing over issues such as the proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage. He supports gay rights, he said, but hasn't been involved until now.

In Baltimore City, officials took in 2,000 forms early in the day and expected as many as 7,000 new voters by the time the office closed at 9 p.m., said election director Barbara E. Jackson.

"This is the first time since we had mail-in registration when we've actually been busy with people coming in on the last day," she said. "It's unbelievable."

Show of determination

Many people went to great lengths yesterday to beat the registration deadline.

In Glen Burnie, would-be voters took the morning off from jobs or other duties. Some brought their babies, others rushed in and out, already late for work. A young man working temporarily in New York drove home on his day off to pick up an absentee ballot.

Stephanie Flood waited in line to deliver registrations for people she didn't even know: She discovered them in her interoffice mail yesterday morning at the county Health Department and her conscience told her to drive over and turn them in.

Nobody was more determined than Mary Beth Hess, 37, a U.S. customs attorney, and her husband, Justice Department contractor Richard Hess, 39, who took the morning off to register - for the third time. They wouldn't leave the office without their temporary voter registration cards. They had tried twice before at the Motor Vehicles Administration, but after making a call Friday, she discovered that they were still not listed as registered. Now they are.

"There are very few things you have to do to live in such a great country, and this is one of them," she said.

Patience on line

"I haven't seen this much excitement in 30 years," said Barbara L. Fisher, Anne Arundel's election director. Yesterday, her deputy was stuck in her car waiting for a parking spot outside. She had to call the office 10 times before getting through earlier that morning.

Unlike the phones wailing at the election office yesterday, the people in line were patient. They came with babies in carriages, lunches in sacks. Some even limped in. Rodney Culpepper, 45, using a cane after knee surgery, hoped his car wouldn't be towed. He had passed up several previous opportunities to register and forced himself to come in yesterday.

"I just want to do it once in my life," he said, "just to see if I pick the winner."

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