Voters across Maryland reported record lines and waits of up to two hours Tuesday as a close presidential contest and several controversial state ballot questions drew people to the polls.
"In all the elections I've been to, I've never seen a line this long," former congresswoman Helen Bentley said of her precinct at Dulaney High School.
Maryland could become the first state in the nation to uphold gay marriage on referendum. Voters are considering another first – whether to grant in-state college tuition to certain illegal immigrants, the only time in the country the issue has been decided at the polls. And roughly $90 million — more than any other political campaign in state history — has been spent to sway voters in the debate over expanding gambling. As of 5 p.m., Maryland turnout reached about 62 percent, officials said.
The crush of voters overwhelmed some precincts, where lines bottlednecked at the check-in table or combined precincts led to confusion and multiple lines. Voters were queued as early as 5:45 a.m. Election officials reported a smattering of privacy concerns across the state. In one case, the long lines forced voters to snake behind voting booths in Pasadena. Some frustrated voters have simply walked away from the polls.
"I have never seen it that crowded," said Tom Cunningham, who gave up when he saw the line at Digital Harbor High School in Federal Hill and decided he'd return at lunch to vote. "That's great. It's good to see people voting."
Gov. Martin O'Malley witnessed bottlenecked crowds at a Silver Spring polling center, where the arrival of a bus of seniors with special needs created a two and a half hour wait as voters stalled at the check-in table. O'Malley's spokeswoman Raquel Gillory the governor asked election officials to resolve the problem.
Initial waits Tuesday morning lasted about an hour at Dumbarton Middle School in Baltimore County, where two polling precincts that were combined into one location caused confusion for voters. By 8:15 a.m., the lines had thinned and the confusion dissipated. By then, voters had already shivered in light jackets, unprepared for the wait in frigid morning temperatures.
Concerned about heavy crowds in the 2008 election, state election officials then invested in more electronic poll books and this year assumed 2012 crowds would be eased by high turnout during the state's early voting period.
"Clearly, we're seeing really long lines, and maybe some of those assumptions were wrong," said Ross Goldstein, deputy state administrator for the Maryland State Board of Elections. A lack of electronic poll books may be part of the problem, but it may not be the only cause for lines.
"It's something we're going to have to look at after the election," Goldstein said, adding: "Part of it's just a function of what time people turn out to vote, and there could be instances where the equipment allocation is not enough to handle the crowd."
That appeared to be the case at Rodgers Forge Elementary School, where a hundred people waited in line, only to find the bottleneck at three election workers checking in voters while more than half a dozen voting booths sat empty.
"If they had one more person checking people in, they probably would have been full," said Richard Yost, who waited an hour and 20 minutes to vote to uphold same-sex marriage and the state's Dream Act granting some illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates.
"I wanted to make sure I voted for people's civil liberties," said Yost, who also cast a vote for President Obama. "Voting for the president's pretty important to me, but it just seems like a unique occasion to grant people rights."
At Steuart Hill Academy in Union Square, Ali Shabazz waited in a line that stretched from the door to South Gilmor Street to weigh-in against the ballot questions on same-sex marriage and gambling expansion.
"I have some young children coming up and I'm concerned about what they're going to be facing in the coming years," said Shabazz, adding that his Muslim faith helped shape his views. "I'm not trying to look at same-sex marriage and gambling as an option."
Many voters said the hot-button issue of same-sex marriage drove them to vote. Jules Cole, a Realtor from Olney, said she voted against it because she feared the precedent it would set.
"I have nothing against gays. They have rights, so why do they have to piggyback on marriage? Why can't they come up with something else and call it what they want? It's opening the door to lots of other things, like polygamy."
Elections officials predicted an 80 percent turn-out rate among registered voters, consistent with past presidential elections. In 2008 and 2004, 78 percent of registered voters cast ballots in statewide. Reports of heavy waits came from around the state despite early voting turnout that set Maryland records.
More than 430,500 ballots were cast early, one by recently engaged Roger Reavis, from Jarrettsville in Harford County.
"At first I was a little offended that people were voting on the rights of a minority group," said Reavis, who is gay and planning a wedding he would like to hold in Maryland.