Officials in the D.C. region predict heavy turnout at the polls despite the long lines that marked pre-Election Day voting, as campaigns urge citizens to flock to the ballot box on Tuesday to decide a deadlocked presidential race, heated local contests and controversial ballot questions.
More than 11 percent of the electorate opted for in-person early voting in both the District and Maryland, citing business trips, frenetic schedules or the simple desire to avoid crowds. President Obama is popular in the nation's capital, a heavily Democratic voting bloc, and two at-large members of the D.C. Council are fighting to keep their seats in a race that forayed into personal attacks. Marylanders, meanwhile, must weigh in on congressional contests and a bevy of ballot questions on hot social topics such as same-sex marriage and gambling.
Enthusiasm for the race for the White House and other variables — such as the number of voting machines deployed for each precinct — could cut into the theory that an influx of early voters will equal thinner crowds on Election Day.
"It ought to, but there are so many weedy details," said Paul Gronke, a professor at Reed College in Portland, Ore., who runs its Early Voting Information Center and is considered the go-to expert on the phenomenon.
Thirty-two states and the District offer early in-person voting during a designated period, and 27 states and the nation's capital allow voters to send in absentee ballots without providing an excuse, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"I think it's the new normal," Mr. Gronke said.
Early voting as a concept seemed to peak in 2008, he added, but it is "on everyone's radar" because the Romney and Obama campaigns have put a premium on early voters during the tight race.
Maryland offered early voting from Oct. 27 to Friday, although Hurricane Sandy prompted officials to close voting sites on Monday and Tuesday of last week. Unofficial state-issued figures show 11.65 percent of registered voters, or 430,573 out of 3,694,658, chose to vote early. In Talbot County on the Eastern Shore, nearly a quarter of registered voters took advantage of the option.
In the District, 52,739 voters out of a registered electorate of more than 472,000took advantage of early voting, according to the D.C. Board of Elections. Crowds queued up in lines that curled around voting centers at times, particularly on the Saturday that preceded Sandy, and Ward 4 voters led the way by casting 9,244 ballots.
As in Maryland, the storm shut down early-voting sites in the District for two days, prompting officials in both jurisdictions to extend hours at the polling sites later in the week.
The District offered early voting for the first time in September 2010, making this cycle the first time the option has been offered in a presidential election. While this year's early turnout is about twice that in 2010, it is unclear if the phenomenon will trim lines Tuesday.
"The enthusiasm leads me to believe Election Day will be just as high," said Clifford Tatum, executive director of the D.C. Board of Elections.
Mr. Gronke said early voting has its roots in no-excuse absentee voting in Western states in the 1970s. It has been more of a "populist" movement than a liberal one, with traditionally conservative states such as Texas jumping on the trend early while more liberal states in the Northeast remain notable holdouts, perhaps because of a tight grip on tradition, he said.
He said Virginia is also a noteworthy holdout, considering the large number of residents who need to commute into the District on weekdays.
Voters in the Old Dominion need to cite one of 17 excuses to vote absentee. More than 427,000 voters submitted absentee ballots before the statutory cutoff date of seven days before the election, although some exceptions were made because of last week's storm, said Justin Riemer, deputy secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections.
Nonetheless, local officials are girding for a high turnout on Tuesday. Virginia is a key swing state for the presidential race and has one of the country's most closely watched Senate contests, between Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine.
"The purpose behind [absentee] voting is not necessarily to thin out the crowds on Election Day," Mr. Riemer said.
While turnout is hard to predict, voters should expect the weather to be sunny. The D.C. region forecast calls for below normal temperatures with clear skies, before precipitation makes its way into the region in the following days, according to the National Weather Service. Its meteorologists say temperatures across the region should range from the 30s atop the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to up to 50 degrees in areas east of the mountains.
"Dress warm. It will be really cool out there in the morning," Mr. Tatum advised voters. "Bring your paper, bring your patience."
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