To beat Election Day rush, throngs waiting to vote early

ATLANTA -- By 10 a.m. Wednesday, Margaret Jones and her sister, Ann Simmons, had waited 90 minutes to vote early at the Adamsville Recreation Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Sitting with hundreds of others in the center's gymnasium, they had perhaps another hour left — but they didn't mind.

"If it takes longer, it takes longer," said Jones, 63, planning to vote for Democratic nominee Barack Obama. "As long as it takes, I'll be here until I vote. This is a very historic moment in this country's history, and it's important to be part of what's going on."

Added Simmons, a retired high school teacher: "After 40 years, I can finally vote for an African American for president who has a legitimate chance of winning. I always told my students voting is a privilege for us. It's not a responsibility or a duty or a burden. It's a privilege, and never more so than this year."

Georgians are turning out by the hundreds of thousands to vote early, ahead of Tuesday's anticipated crush at the polls. In some counties, they waited four and five hours Monday — and up to nine hours in one Atlanta suburb. By Wednesday, waits averaged two to three hours.

About 25% of Georgia's 5.8 million registered voters — 1.5 million — had cast advance ballots by Wednesday, said Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel.

Nationally, early and absentee voting has increased dramatically since starting in late September. Early-voting hours have been extended in Florida, Indiana, New Mexico, Ohio and Tennessee. The heaviest such voting has been in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.

Early-bird voters have lined up even in states that saw little of Obama or Republican nominee John McCain, such as heavily Democratic Illinois and heavily Republican Texas.

Paul Gronke of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Oregon predicts that up to one-third of voters will vote early, up from 20% in 2004.

Voters at two Atlanta precincts — one predominantly black, the other mostly white — talked Wednesday about braving the season's coldest temperatures. Many said they wanted to eliminate the risk of last-minute snags on Election Day.

For many at the recreation center in a mostly black community in southwest Atlanta, this election is a long-awaited moment that feels like a burden being lifted. "I'm just so happy and proud to be in this era, to see history being made like it's never been made before," said Lillian Wardley, 73. "Oh, I just thank the Lord for this opportunity."

Christopher Robinson, 19, waited 90 minutes to vote in his first presidential election. "It's a great feeling to know that my vote counts, because it's a very historic election," said the part-time student and security guard.

Across town at a precinct serving mostly white voters in downtown Decatur, people waited outside shivering. Debby Pollack, a pediatrician, stood in line about 50 minutes. "I work on Election Day, and my schedule doesn't allow me to wait in line," said Pollack, 39, who didn't say for whom she was voting.

Precinct manager Renata Fleming said she's never seen such enthusiasm for early voting. "People start lining up at 5:30 (a.m.)," she said. "At 7 p.m., when we close, we still have 200-300 people in line. People are on a mission."

Wolf reported from Washington