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Long Lines and Intense Feelings

November 03, 2004|John M. Glionna and James Rainey | Times Staff Writers

In the end, there seemed to be just one place to escape the din -- just one place to get away from the blaring television ads, the robo-phone calls, the shouting television personalities and the chanting street-corner campaigners.

America found a refuge Tuesday at the polls. In record numbers -- projected late Tuesday to reach at least 120 million -- voters turned up at churches, school multipurpose rooms, shopping centers and even funeral parlors to set about choosing a president.

So many people voted from Jacksonville, Fla., to Cleveland to Los Angeles that lines extended long into the night. In Allegheny County, Pa., polls had to be kept open 90 extra minutes to accommodate all those who arrived before the planned closing hour. In Cleveland, a federal judge ordered that ballots be given to all those waiting in line after hours.

The Committee for the Study of the American Electorate said that at least 60% of voting-age Americans had cast ballots and that the figure could approach the 61.9% turnout in 1968, when civil rights protests and the divisive Vietnam War loomed large. The most experienced election officers said Tuesday they couldn't remember anything quite like it.

"I've been doing this a lot of years," said Thomas Hudson, a 67-year-old poll worker and retired baker in Jacksonville, "and I've never seen this kind of turnout."

Either thrilled or appalled by a divisive presidency, torn by a war with no certain end, and confounded by a halting economy, few voters said they considered sitting on the sidelines this year. If their interest in voting faltered for a moment, they probably were confronted Tuesday by voter mobilization campaigns that set records for their size and reach.

"There is an energy in the air in a way I have never seen before," said novelist Tom Wolfe, after voting Tuesday afternoon at a public school on New York's Upper East Side. "People are not asking if you are voting but when you are voting. There is something vital going on."

The vitriolic sentiments of the campaign remained in evidence through much of the day, as supporters of President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry jousted over poll hours and voter challenges. But many of the squads of lawyers and precinct watchers said the expected voting problems were a nonevent, akin to the predicted "Y2K" computer chaos that was to have accompanied the arrival of the year 2000.

"It's rhetoric," Florida poll watcher Harry Miles, 60, said of the predicted trouble. "As of now, none of that rhetoric has surfaced. Everyone I've seen so far has walked out of those polls with smiles on their faces."

A long day of voter mobilization began even before dawn, as armies of paid- and volunteer-campaign workers girded for their long day.

Tony Charles awoke at 4:45 a.m., after two hours of sleep, to begin the day at America Coming Together, a liberal voter-outreach organization. He arrived at the group's Cleveland headquarters 30 minutes later to meet with a caterer who would deliver 1,500 sack lunches to ACT canvassers in predominantly African American neighborhoods.

By 7:30 a.m., with reports that the initial turnout was larger than ever before, Charles, 48, was already smiling. "We're going to have some fun today," he said.

In Albuquerque, two University of New Mexico students woke at 6:45 so they could hang their spray-painted "Bush Is Bad" banner over a busy freeway and vote.

Jeremy Kassan, 19, said that it was "way earlier than I've been up in, like, two years," then left the overpass with a friend to vote before classes started. "We're going to go save democracy," he said.

In Lebanon, Wis., a small town between Madison and Milwaukee, Wayne and Carole Vawter took a more personal, and conservative, approach. They got out the directory for their church, Calvary Baptist, and began dialing.

The "strong" Bush supporters said they didn't have to be too specific with fellow congregants.

"We just decided we want the people we know, the people that have the same values we do, we want them to vote," Wayne Vawter said. The couple did not mention Bush by name and they did not stop until they had made 130 calls. After one particularly long stint on the phone, Carole said, "my ear got hot, and I'd make Wayne do it."

Election day penetrated the consciousness in many ways.

In Cincinnati, sound trucks roared with a pro-Kerry message. A disc jockey for African American oriented WZAK-FM in Cleveland cooed at listeners to ignore a persistent rain and "sacrifice your perm to change history." Cuban American radio hosts in Miami urged their heavily Republican audience to get out for Bush, while Dr. D. James Kennedy of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Coral Ridge Ministries, broadcast an ad that told voters it was a sin not to vote.

All the sound and fury was not lost on Americans, even as they said they had tired of it.

The lines were so long at one Miami precinct that Elnora Solomon, 76, went home, but came back at noon and cast her ballot for Kerry in just minutes.

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