Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 4, 2008

DAY|Turnout heavy from beginning across Warren

From staff reports

Two years of campaigning culminated in voters in Warren County queuing with voters across the nation today to have their say on who will be president of the United States, serve in the U.S. House and fill about a third of U.S. Senate seats.

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Lines started forming about two hours before Warren County’s largest precincts opened at 7, and steady streams cast ballots through mid-morning.

“I want to be a part of history, and history is going to be made today,” said Carolyn Parson, noting she has never seen lines form outside of the American Legion on Monroe Street before the polls opened on Election Day in the past.

While Mississippi was expected to favor Republican John McCain for president, Democrat Barack Obama was the frontrunner nationally — and the favorite of many voters.

“I just feel like everybody is having a hard time right now,” said Fannie Tonth as she left a crowded Sherman Avenue School gym, which is the Culkin precinct. Her vote, she said, was for Obama. “This morning, I voted for change,” she added.

Others said they gave a nod to McCain’s experience. “It’s just that we want the right man in office,” said Peggy Stokes as she exited the polling place alongside her husband, Billy.

Culkin is the county’s largest polling station with 5,996 names on poll books. Precinct Manager Jan Whatley estimated 450 votes were cast by mid-morning and that poll workers, though organized, will be in for a long day. “We will probably be here until 10 tonight,” Whatley said. Polls close at 7, but any voters standing in line will be allowed to cast ballots. After voting places close, absentee ballots are totaled with precinct totals and reported to the Circuit Clerk’s office. From there, each box is announced.

In addition to the McCain-Obama contest, both Mississippi’s Senate seats will be filled today. Senior U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican, has campaigned very little and is expected to win a new, six-year term over Democratic nominee Erik Fleming of Jackson. Fleming has had a very small budget, only enough to afford a few yard signs.

The other Senate seat is that from which Trent Lott resigned 11 months ago. The contest between Roger Wicker, who has been interim senator, and Ronnie Musgrove was close in polling. Although Wicker is a Republican and Musgrove is a Democrat, their party affiliations do not appear on ballots because special elections in Mississippi are nonpartisan. Today’s winner will serve the four years remaining on Lott’s term.

Warren County voters also had the 23-county contest for one of the state’s U.S. House seats on their ballots. U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat, is expected to win a new two-year term over Jackson school teacher Richard Cook.

A three-way race for a state Supreme Court seat was also on local ballots, with Vicksburg attorney Ceola James and former Copiah prosecutor Jim Kitchens challenging incumbent Chief Justice Jim Smith.

On ballots in supervisor District 3 and District 4, candidates were seeking seats on the local school board.

At Vicksburg Junior High, the largest precinct inside Vicksburg’s city limits, about 50 people had lined up by 6:45 a.m., Precinct Manager Elva Smith said.

Workers at most precincts reported the same early turnout at places unaccustomed to long lines early, including Bovina, Tingleville and at Carpenter’s Union Hall on U.S. 61 South, home to the Jett precinct. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Mark Chaney who has worked at polls at Bovina for many years.

“I want to make history. I want to be a part of this. Obama is continuing what Martin Luther King did. I even woke up this morning at 4 because I was so excited to see this day come,” Sheilon Wilson said after voting at Carpenter’s Union Hall.

Besides current issues and history, civic duty and patriotism was another common theme among early voters.

“I want to be a part in this election and have a choice. I mean, think about it — so many countries don’t have a choice, like Iraq. If they try to make a choice they have a chance of getting killed. We get to do this without facing that,” voter Mike Shalrey said.

Touch-screen voting machines appeared to work at local precincts, although some glitches were reported. A handful of voters said they were not able to vote because their names appeared on poll books located at precincts elsewhere in the area. 

Warren County entered Election Day with 36,957 names on its poll books, a 6 percent jump over 2004 when 56.8 percent of those listed cast votes. Warren County has voted for the Republican presidential nominee nine consecutive times dating to 1972. Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said he’s not predicting how many Mississippians will vote, but he believes turnout will be heavy and lines will be long because of the historic nature of the election.

“I’ll be disappointed if it’s not the largest we’ve ever had in this state,” Hosemann said Monday.

Nearly 1.2 million Mississippians voted in the 2004 presidential race, a record. New figures released by Hosemann’s office Monday show nearly 1.9 million voters are registered now — a 10.3 percent increase since January.

Several groups have taken steps they hope will head off potential Election Day problems, including recruiting hundreds of attorneys to monitor polls and answer calls from confused voters.

Nearly 195,000 new voters have registered in Mississippi, and the groups are trying to educate them about what to expect when they cast ballots, said Yumeka Rushing, director of the Protect the Vote 2008 campaign organized by the state NAACP, Mississippi ACLU, Mississippi Center for Justice and the Magnolia Bar Association.

Voters who show up wearing campaign clothing will be asked to go outside of the polling place and change. In some cases, they may just have to turn their shirts inside out.

Hosemann has said some 17,000 first-time voters will have to show ID because they mailed their registration without sufficient identification. Those voters will be required to show photo ID, a utility bill, a paycheck or a bank statement at the polls under the state’s interpretation of the federal Help America Vote Act. The state does not have a law requiring voters to show ID.

Hosemann’s staff will be in 30 Mississippi counties to assist circuit clerks or elections commissioners.

The Mississippi Democratic Party said it would deploy attorneys to areas that report polling problems and position election monitors at all polling places.

The Mississippi Republican Party said it was using more poll watchers and attorneys for this election than it had in the past.