For months, young people have knocked on doors, made phone calls and given money to support Sen. Barack Obama. Yesterday, they finally had a chance to vote for him.
"It's like cool to vote now. It's a fashion statement," said Lola Olakanye, 22, a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park, who left class early to go home to Silver Spring to vote. "If you don't vote, you're lame."
Young voters turned out across the country yesterday in numbers unprecedented in recent history, exit polls found, a surge propelled by anxiety over the economy, frustration with the war in Iraq and, perhaps most of all, a sense of connection to Obama. Among voters ages 18-29, Obama won 75 percent in Maryland and 68 nationwide, according to exit polls. Obama won 60 percent of the Maryland vote overall.
"I think Obama himself is a unifying figure for young people," said Jack Berger, 20, a John Hopkins University junior from Westchester County, N.Y., and Obama volunteer who was headed to Pennsylvania yesterday afternoon for a final round of canvassing. "The legacy of Bush and the charisma of Obama is a big motivating factor in getting people out."
Colleges in Maryland went to new lengths to make sure students could vote. The University of Maryland provided for the first time a free shuttle from off-campus residences to local polling places. St. Mary's College of Maryland, in St. Mary's City, canceled classes so students could return home to vote.
One of them was Alexa Milroy, a St. Mary's sophomore who returned to Silver Spring to cast her ballot. Milroy, 19, took off her first semester of college last fall to volunteer for the Obama campaign in Iowa, where she lived with her grandmother for five months while canvassing for Obama. "His message of hope and change really resonated with me," she said.
While most colleges were open yesterday, students said that many professors canceled class and encouraged students to study, vote, or both. At College Park, where a polling place was set up in the student union, more than 1,000 students voted, some waiting for more than an hour and a half.
The Maryland Board of Elections said teenage voters made up 27.5 percent of all new voter registrations this year, up from an average of 11 percent for the previous four presidential election cycles. Furthermore, registrations for those age 21 and younger were 148,685 this year, up sixfold from the 1992 registration number of 23,788.
In 1996, the national turnout among those ages 18-29 was 37 percent, according to data compiled by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Youth turnout ticked upward to 41 percent in 2000, and 48 percent in 2004. Yesterday's youth turnout figures, which were expected to be even higher, weren't available last night.
"I think that this generation of young people is in many ways more engaged than my generation, which was Generation X," said Peter Levine, director of the Tufts center.
He said Obama's campaign reached out to youth in new ways, both online with pages on Facebook and with Camp Obama, a training program for canvassers. According to University Wire, a syndicate for college newspapers, 63 papers endorsed Obama, while only one (the University of Mississippi paper) endorsed McCain.
Ariane Rosenberg, 20, a University of Maryland sophomore, said she voted for McCain because she supports his fiscal and international policies. Early yesterday afternoon, she was waiting in an hour-and-a-half line at the College Park student union. "Hopefully, I'll make it to class by 3:30," she said.
The United States Naval Academy, McCain's alma mater, did not provide transportation to the polls, but midshipmen were expected to watch the results on TVs in the lounge rooms at Bancroft Hall, where all of them live.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, provided a free shuttle service to Catonsville High School, the polling place for students who live on campus. While riding the bus yesterday afternoon, Daniel Lucas said he watched hundreds of hours of videos of the candidates before deciding to vote for Bob Barr, the Libertarian nominee, because he supports a smaller government. But Lucas said that if he lived in a swing state, he would vote for Obama.
"I think McCain is just spreading the wealth to corporations," said Lucas, 20, a junior from St. Mary's County. "I see Obama as a candidate for the times."
Baltimore Sun reporter Kelly Brewington contributed to this article.