Hurricane Sandy contributes to long lines for early voting

Voters looking to cast their ballots early found long lines Saturday across Maryland, as the opening of the presidential election met with the urgent preparation for the incoming Hurricane Sandy.

Many complained on social media that they waited more than an hour and a half on the first day of early voting, as officials said initial turnout appeared to be far higher than in the last statewide election. Some residents said they wanted to vote as soon as possible so they wouldn't have to worry about it during the storm, expected to start hitting Maryland late Sunday.

Baltimore resident Gene Johnson, 75, waiting at an early-voting site in Southeast Baltimore, said his plan had been to vote on Election Day, Nov. 6. Then he heard about Sandy.

"I said, 'Suppose it's really nasty out,'" he said, standing among about 50 people at St. Brigid's Parish Center. "I'm 75 years old. I don't know if I want to go out if it's really raining."

Early voting will run through Thursday, one of the shortest windows in the country. Advocates for and against the statewide ballot issues on gambling and same-sex marriage are pushing their supporters to cast their ballots before Election Day. Proponents of charging in-state college tuition for some children of illegal immigrants also mobilized supporters.

An executive order signed Friday by Gov. Martin O'Malley declared a state of emergency, which would allow changes in the voting schedule if severe weather interferes.

In 2010, the first year of early voting in Maryland, 6.3 percent of the state's general election votes were cast in advance.

More than 23,000 people cast ballots within the first three hours that voting booths were open, said state elections administrator Linda H. Lamone. She attributed the high volume to the impending storm.

Takirra Winfield, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, said the governor asks that the public be patient with the long lines and view them as a positive development.

"It's great that people are willing to stand in a line to vote," she said.

Many of those waiting around the state used their smartphones to discuss the lines on Twitter. Several also sent messages to The Baltimore Sun and shared their experiences.

Jennifer E. Manning of Columbia wrote an email while standing in a line that wrapped around at Florence Bain Senior Center. She wound up waiting an hour and a half to vote.

"The nearby Starbucks should take orders and deliver. Food trucks should pull up. Where's our entrepreneurial spirit?" she wrote.

Robert Towner of Laurel said he had been waiting for more than 40 minutes at a College Park polling place and expected to wait at least 30 more.

"I would estimate at least 300-400 in line right now, and signs for every candidate and ballot are represented," Towner wrote in an email. " A lot of push for and against Questions 6 and 7, and a number of [Prince George's] school board candidates are making the rounds too."

Ruth Thomas of Preston said she waited for a half-hour to vote in Denton.

"When I left the line was out the door," Thomas wrote in an email. "Glad to see a big turnout — it means people care about the presidential race."

At St. Brigid's center, one of five early voting locations in Baltimore, Frankie Holland said she had gotten a call Saturday morning from Baltimore Gas and Electric officials, who said they were checking on customers before Hurricane Sandy.

As she assured the caller she was prepared for the storm, Holland said she figured it might be an ideal time to perform her civic duty.

Holland, 69, said she had concerns whether public transportation would run during inclement weather. She added that she has been voting "ever since I've been old enough," but Saturday marked the first time she's voted early.

Baltimore Sun community coordinator Michael Gold contributed to this report.

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