Experts: Voter turnout could be 'unprecedented'

— -- Americans cast votes by the millions Tuesday on their way to new benchmarks in an election that's already making history.

Voting experts say they expect record turnout among blacks and possibly people under 30. They also say the country could surpass the high-water mark set in 1960, when Democrat John Kennedy faced Republican Richard Nixon and nearly 64% of eligible citizens voted.

"I could imagine us getting up there into the high 60s, to an unprecedented high," said Donald Green, director of Yale's Institution for Social and Policy Studies.

Curtis Gans, head of American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate, said voters haven't been so massively dissatisfied with their president, the direction of the country and the state of the economy since 1932. That mood is driving turnout, he said, as are "strong affirmative feelings" about Democrat Barack Obama and his extensive get-out-the-vote operation.

More than half of voters in Colorado and Nevada had voted by Election Day, as had about 40% of Florida voters. States that did not have widespread early voting, such as Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Virginia, reported long lines.

Robert Ware, 63, an election monitor with the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners, visited six polling places by 10 a.m. and found more people in line than in 2000 and 2004 combined. The shortest line had 200 people. "The past election was a trade wind blowing," he said. "This feels like a hurricane."

Whether or not turnout percentage records are shattered, a record number of people will have voted by day's end, and they will be the most representative electorate in U.S. history. Before 1920, women could not vote. Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, blacks were officially "eligible," but most in the South were kept from registering. Before 1972, people ages 18 to 20 could not vote.

At polling stations across the country, voters said they were concerned about jobs and health care, moral values and experience. Many were first-time voters drawn to the polls by the sour economy and Obama's historic candidacy.

Black Americans were acutely aware of a moment they could hardly believe had come: a black nominee at the top of a major-party ticket. Robbie Sellers, 34, waiting to vote in Detroit, said her father is 84 and "he never would have dreamed of this day. Even now, he voted, but he's afraid something will happen to Obama."

Heavy black registration and turnout in North Carolina gave Obama a shot at the traditionally GOP state. "It's really a major event," said Mary Chance, 60, a first-time voter from Raleigh. "Now I'm going back to my house to drag my daughter out here. She didn't want to come out in the rain, but I told her that's not an excuse. This is important."

In Virginia, Sonja Crisp, 41, waited to vote at Parkside Middle School, down the road from Reb Yank Drive, in a town — Manassas — that was the site of two major Civil War battles. In past elections, she said, "it seemed more like a fairy tale that a black person could actually be seriously considered for president." If Obama wins, "it would mean so much. It would finally mean we are equal with anyone … and the sky's the limit for anyone."

McCain voter Carol Clauss, 40, an executive secretary from Tampa, said her main concern about Obama was his short résumé. "I wanted someone who has experience, who's been doing this for a while," she said. "I believe in John McCain and in his values."

In Macomb County outside Detroit, a classic swing area where blue-collar Democrats once were known as "Reagan Republicans," Camille Smith, 41, of Sterling Heights said morals and family values guided her vote for McCain.

"McCain is not for abortion, for one thing," said Smith, who brought her four children to the polls. She said McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin solidified her choice because, like her, Palin has a special-needs child and could become an advocate in Washington for parents of such children.

In Parker, Colo., outside Denver, Peter Thurmes, 51, said economics pointed him to McCain. Laid off three weeks ago as a construction superintendent, Thurmes said Obama would raise taxes on businesses and they'd hire fewer people. "Businesses don't want to put more money out if they know they're going to be spending more on taxes," he said. "Maybe Obama will cut taxes for the middle class" — but they might lose their jobs.

Obama elicited the first vote ever from David Gonzalez, 44, a Denver painter who said he can no longer find painting work and knocks on doors with his leaf blower and rake. He and his girlfriend have slept in a nearby church for three weeks since they became unable to afford the rent on their house.

Gonzalez said he was turned off by politics in the past, but "I see good things in Obama. To look at him, I feel in my heart that he means well for this country. To me, Obama is like another Kennedy."

In razor-close Missouri, Saint Louis University opened the first polling station in memory on its downtown campus. Scott Smith, dean of students, said the campus has 2,200 new voters — more than ever before — after organizing by both College Republicans and Young Democrats. He said 250 voters were in line when the polling station opened at 6 a.m.

Sophomore Kasia Sullivan, 19, a McCain supporter, said the presidential election was all the talk on campus and even in classes. "There's more excitement among young people than there ever has been," she said. "It's a cool opportunity to be part of history."

Voters under 30 supported Obama by huge margins in opinion polls before the election. Tim Pilkenton, 24, of Raleigh, a National Guardsman who has been deployed twice while trying to finish engineering studies at Wake Technical Community College, said they could put Obama in the White House.

"I think it's going to be a lot of 18- to 25-year-olds who are going to do it," Pilkenton said. "Among my age group, among the people I know, every person I know is voting for Obama. I know a lot of people in that age group who are voting this time who didn't vote before, a lot of first time voters. And most of the people I know think McCain would be just another Bush."

Youth vote expert Peter Levine of Tufts University said, "All the leading indicators are positive, and I am expecting a turnout increase of young people and maybe even a share increase." During this year's long primary season, he said, 17% of eligible citizens under 30 participated, up from 8% in 2000. "The momentum could hold up," he said, because "young people liked Obama and he won" the nomination.

Blacks accounted for 11% of the vote in 2004 and had a 56% turnout rate — 4 points lower than the national turnout rate. David Bositis, an expert on black voting at the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies, said black turnout could reach 70% this year and black support for Obama could reach 94%.

Bositis said the support level in part reflects Obama's stand on issues. He notes that blacks overwhelmingly opposed the Iraq war. He also cites an economic trend in Joint Center polls of black voters: In 2000, 10% said they were doing worse than the previous year; in 2004, that rose to 28%; and in a poll released two weeks ago, 55% said they were doing worse.

Bositis said the tug of helping Obama make history spurred voting. "The emotional component will drive up turnout higher than it's ever been" among blacks, Bositis said.

Daniel Baxter, the elections director in the 83% black city of Detroit, got at that emotional component with a plea for patience to voters faced with long lines: "What is five hours in comparison to waiting for 300 years for this moment to arrive?"

Contributing: Emily Bazar in Colorado, Marisol Bello in Michigan, Dennis Cauchon in Ohio, Larry Copeland in Florida, Pete Eisler in North Carolina, Rick Jervis in Missouri, Judy Keen in Illinois, Andrea Stone in Virginia