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.
"I wanted to be a part of making history, being in the history books, and being able to say that I voted for what I thought was right," Reavis said, adding that he's been suggesting a possible Maryland wedding as a tongue-in-cheek ploy to convince friends and his Catholic family to vote to uphold same-sex marriage.
"We're all Catholic," said Carl Reavis, uncle to Roger. "We all just feel like its a civil right."
The stakes, too, were high for expanding Maryland's gambling program to include table games while cutting the tax rate for the five existing casinos and authorizing a third at National Harbor in Prince George's County.
"If it goes down for us in the county it means we're going to have to look at making some very tough choices, and that includes layoffs," Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker III said while he was out soliciting undecided Howard County voters in long lines at Murray Hill Middle School in North Laurel.
In Cheverly, Baker's hometown, the serpentine line to vote was 90 minutes long from head to tail at Gladys Noon Spellman Elementary School. Despite the Baker's strong support for Question 7, which expands gambling, there was some resistance.
"The amount of money we'd get out of gaming is less than what we'd be putting in in infrastructure costs and potential rise in crime," said Pat Nelson, a 10-year town resident sporting a red "Vote No on 7" T-shirt and handing out fliers on the school steps. "The new casino is going to hire experienced people from Vegas and Jersey. Local people are not going to get the high-paying jobs."
Waiting in line to vote, retired federal employee Estavia Mitchell said she still hadn't made up her mind on Question 7.
"I'm against gaming. That's the religious part of me," said Mitchell, wearing a black Obama ball cap. "But as a substitute teacher, I know our schools are hurting and our good, young teachers haven't had a raise in 3 years. When I get to the [voting] booth, I'll hold my nose and make a decision."
While polling, and Maryland's 2-to-1 registration advantage for Democrats, have led political scientists and pundits to predict a near-sure victory for President Obama, voters across the state turned out both for and against him.
Kimberly Shorter, 39, cast a vote in Woodlawn for Obama, the same as she did in 2008, but it felt different this time.
"I figure that in four years, he couldn't have done everything to right the course after the previous administration," Shorter said. "Of course there was some disappointment with the fact that he didn't do everything he set out to do, but he's human and he didn't have a lot of cooperation from Congress."
Eileen Grund was 55 minutes into her wait outside a Parkville precinct, waiting to cast a vote for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, when she said nothing would tempt her out of line.
"I'm going to vote if I have to stand here all day," Grund said. "I'm here because I want to do the right thing. It's not too cold."
Grund said she felt Obama had not done enough to repair the economy and she disliked how his administration handled a terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya. .
At Leisure World, the Silver Spring retirement community that traditionally tops voter turnout statewide, Ardith Curit said her first vote was for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Her last was for Barack Obama.
This time, Curit confided that she's had a change of heart.
"Romney," she said. "I vote the candidate, not the party. I think he can do the job. He has the experience. He hasn't been sitting at a politician's desk his whole life."
David Paulson, a spokesman with Maryland's Attorney General's Office, said his polling place at Dickey Hill Elementary School in the city had a huge line at 7 a.m., and he returned at 8:15 a.m. to face an even longer one. Total wait time: Two hours.
Despite the long waits and brief snags where poll workers couldn't get the power on, by 3 p.m. no major or systemic problems had been reported, Paulson said.
Meredith Curtis of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said the organization had fielded complaints about confusion and extra long waits at polling locations with two precincts. Curtis said at two Baltimore City polling sites people have complained about a long wait in a line, only to be told it is the wrong one and the need to begin their wait again.
Armstead Jones, board of elections director for Baltimore City, attributed longer lines to the city's lengthy ballot, which piles 20 local questions atop seven state ballot initiatives and the presidential election.
"Of course, if these voters don't take the time to go through the specimen ballot and understand it, we're going to have long lines," Jones said. "If you don't take time to understand it ahead of time, it's going to take 10-15 minutes when you're at the machine."
Jones said he also had to squash rumors that poll workers are turning away voters because a computer glitch said they already had voted.
The long city ballot created a confusing set of choices for Patterson Park residents Mike Brooks and Caitlin Brady, who recently moved from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, respectively.
"We're not super sure on some of the questions," Brooks said, explaining that he had read through the first three statewide ballot questions. "The rest, do they affect us?"
Scores of children attended the polls with parents in Pikesville, including 9-year-old Benjamin Talesnick, who wanted to head to the polls after seeing John Ogden in a pro-gambling endorsement commercial from Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Benjamin said he believed expanding gambling would bring more jobs.
"John Ogden really got the kids engaged," said his mother, Robyn Talesnick. "After that commercial, we had been talking about it for weeks."
It took Baltimore lawyer Donna Senft about 50 minutes to vote. Despite the high number of ballot initiatives, people seemed to vote quickly, likely because they had time to read up on the questions in line, Senft said. Others, she said holding up her smartphone, "are doing like me — multi-tasking, going through emails."