The wave of voter enthusiasm that has produced record lines at early balloting stations across the country is being felt even in the District, a jurisdiction where elections are so lopsided that the only real contests are fought in the Democratic primaries.
Residents who stood in line for up to two hours at polling places this week acknowledged that they were less concerned with making sure their favored candidate won than in taking part in what they saw as a moment to remember.
“This is a year in which we will either have a black president or a female vice president, and either one will be making history,” said D.C. resident Elizabeth Holmes.
Miss Holmes, who said she must tend to her elderly mother on Election Day, was among hundreds of people who waited in the cold outside the D.C. Board of Elections office Thursday to cast an absentee, in-person vote.
Ward 3 resident Stuart Stanmore said the election is “crucial even though [Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama] is bound win the D.C. vote.”
“I just want to make sure he gets the popular vote as well,” said Mr. Stanmore, who will work at a polling station on Tuesday.
Since in-person, absentee voting in the District started Oct. 20 at the election board’s Judiciary Square office, the average wait has been about 90 minutes during off-peak hours and has surpassed two hours during lunchtime and the evening.
“When I showed up to vote this morning the line was halfway to the corner,” said Edward O’Connell, of the District’s Petworth neighborhood, who returned to Judiciary Square at midday when the line had dwindled to a few dozen voters.
Such turnouts are surprising in the District, where 75 percent of voters are registered Democrats. Even without campaigning, Democratic candidate John Kerry won 90 percent of the D.C. vote in 2004.
But the crowds are part of a phenomenon being seen across the United States.
Early-voter turnout is on pace to break the 2004 record, with nearly 18 million votes already cast, according to statistics kept by Michael McDonald, a George Mason University associate professor.
Georgia and North Carolina already have surpassed their 2004 totals, and Florida and North Carolina have announced that they will extend the hours at early-voting sites to handle the flood.
The trend is expected to help Mr. Obama. In battleground states such as Colorado, Iowa and New Mexico, Democrats make up a higher percentage of voters than they did four years ago.
But the voting enthusiasm has been tempered by a rash of problems as untrained poll workers struggle to confirm newly registered voters in several states. In Virginia, where nearly 300,000 new voters have been registered, there are worries about voting machines failing on Election Day.
“It’s not a question of if we will see long lines, but where the long lines are and for how long will voters have to wait,” said Jonah Goldman, director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections.
The Virginia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People this week filed a federal lawsuit questioning whether Virginia is ready for a massive voter turnout. An NAACP attorney said Thursday that the civil rights group will not seek a hearing before Tuesday because there is not enough time to analyze new information the state has provided on the number of voting machines and polling places.
Early voting by absentee ballot started in 1864, when many states allowed Civil War soldiers in the field to vote for president. D.C. residents attained the right to vote for president in 1961, with the adoption of the 23rd Amendment, and have been allowed to cast in-person absentee ballots since at least 2000.
Thirty-two states allow voters to cast in-person, absentee ballots without an excuse, while the District and 14 other states require an excuse. In 2004, more than 25 percent of Americans voted before Election Day.
Shanika Amarakoon, a D.C. resident for the past two years, said Thursday that she came to vote early because she will be volunteering in Virginia for Mr. Obama.
“Regardless of what impact it has on the result, I want my voice to matter,” she said. “And so I’ve encouraged all my friends and my family to go vote.”
Bob Branand, a resident of downtown D.C. for more than 35 years, will be in Colorado on Tuesday to campaign for Republican nominee Sen. John McCain.
“It’s a gift to be able to vote, and this is one of the most important elections I’ve ever been a part of, and I’ve been through a lot of elections,” he said.
Mr. Branand, who came to the District to work for the Justice Department in the Nixon administration, said he is supporting Mr. McCain out of concerns for Mr. Obama’s politics.
“Obama has a lot of folks talking about redistributing the wealth, and I think that will take our country in the wrong direction,” he said.
Jason Holzheimer, who with Miss Amarakoon will be campaigning for Mr. Obama in Virginia, disagrees.
“Obama is by far the most exciting candidate I have seen,” he said. “If he is half the president he seems to be, he’ll be the best president in my lifetime.”
Supporters of both candidates agree on the historical significance of the 2008 election.
“A lot of things will change after November 4, regardless of who wins,” Mr. Branand said.
• Audrey Hudson contributed to this article.