Record turnout predicted

Published 10:15 pm Monday, November 3, 2008

First, there was record voter registration. Then, the highest number ever of absentee ballots was requested. Now, Alabama election officials are predicting record turnout Tuesday.

The state’s chief election official is forecasting four out of every five Alabama voters will cast ballots in the presidential election.

“Yes, there are going to be lines,” Secretary of State Beth Chapman said.

The lines will be at the check-in tables, where voters show an ID, Chapman said. No one will have to wait for a voting machine because all 67 counties use paper ballots that are run through optical scanners. That allows many people to vote at one time, she said.

Chapman expects big crowds at polling places and warned workers that voting will take longer than a lunch hour. Plan for two hours, she said.

Across the state, election officials have added extra poll workers and printed more ballots to try to meet the demand for a history-making election. Either America will elect its first black president or the first woman vice president.

In Alabama, there is little suspense about the presidential race. Republican John McCain has held a substantial lead over Democrat Barrack Obama in every poll, and neither candidate bothered to campaign in the state this fall.

“Obama realized there was no way to wrestle Alabama away from McCain,” said D’Linell Finley, a political scientist at Auburn University Montgomery.

Finley also is expecting record turnout.

He said Obama created the initial excitement in the presidential race. But that energy created intensity among Republicans and was enhanced by McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as a running mate.

The momentum began in February when Alabama had a record turnout of 40 percent for the presidential primary, won by Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee.

In recent weeks, a rush of registrations swelled Alabama’s voter rolls to more than 3 million – an increase of more than 284,000 in the last year.

The fastest growth rate was among black voters – nearly 17 percent, compared to nearly 8 percent for whites.

“A higher African-American turnout is likely to benefit down-ballot Democrats,” including state Supreme Court and Public Service Commission, Finley said.

Thursday was the last day to request an absentee ballot, and counties large and small reported record requests.

Lee County Circuit Clerk Corinne Hurst said the east Alabama county had 2,100 absentee ballots four years ago and will have about 3,200 this time. “People on both sides are passionate,” she said.

Alabama’s polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. Chapman said voters hoping to avoid long lines should arrive at midmorning and midafternoon. Lines tend to be longest when people are voting before work, at lunch and after work, she said.

Chapman said anyone waiting in line at 7 p.m. will be allowed to vote, but people who arrive after 7 p.m. will not.

The Justice Department is sending federal observers to Perry County in west Alabama, just as it did in the primary election in June, to keep an eye on the proceedings in a county that has had a history of voting complaints.

In addition, Alabama’s Democratic and Republican parties say they have lined up more than 300 volunteer lawyers to watch for election problems in every county.

When all the votes are counted, Chapman predicts that the turnout will fall between 79 percent and 81 percent.

If she’s right, that will break the old record of 76 percent set in the 1992 presidential election, when Democrat Bill Clinton beat Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush.