After nearly a year of presidential politics, months of negative television ads and weeks of campaign brochures filling their mail boxes, voters decisively took control of the electoral process Tuesday.
They stood in line before dawn, crowded church halls and school gymnasiums into the evening and even marked ballots in hospital rooms to produce what will almost certainly be the heaviest turnout in the state’s history.
When they got to the polling stations, they split their tickets between the two parties’ candidates, backing Democrat John Kerry for president and sending Patty Murray back to the Senate for a third term, but choosing Republicans Sam Reed for secretary of state, Rob McKenna for attorney general and five-term legislator Cathy McMorris to fill Eastern Washington’s open seat in the U.S. Congress.
In other races, Democrat Christine Gregoire had a slight lead over Republican Dino Rossi for an open governor’s seat, and several Spokane County races will be decided by absentee ballots.
Longtime election workers marveled at the lines of voters who stood patiently for a slot at a voting booth or to request a provisional ballot.
“We’re just wonderfully busy, seriously busy,” said Jolene Feher, a poll worker at a site for four precincts that vote at Fourth Memorial Church on Spokane’s near North Side. “There are a lot of determined voters.”
One of those determined voters was Spokane Falls Community College student Sadie Blaha, who drove to the church with her boyfriend, Samuel DeGre, to drop off her absentee ballot because she didn’t want to take a chance it wouldn’t be postmarked in time.
“I didn’t vote four years ago because it didn’t feel like it was important,” said Blaha, 23. “This year, I’m hoping that it counts.”
For Blaha and DeGre, the main issues driving their decisions were the war in Iraq and the need for a change in the country’s direction.
“I believe the war is wrong and that’s my main reason for voting Bush out,” Blaha said.
In the Spokane Valley, Al Fisher, 49, cast his ballot for President Bush, saying he couldn’t support the Democratic challenger who was “the most liberal senator in the United States” and was upset with his conduct after the Vietnam War.
“I think Kerry says what he wants the audience to hear,” Fisher said. But if the challenger had won, Fisher said he could live with it.
“I’ll be disappointed, but that’s our process and it’s better than any other process in the world,” he said.
In Spokane County, the process involved filling in ovals near a candidate’s name, and feeding the ballot into a computer scanner. At a few poll sites, the scanners balked in the morning and had to be repaired or replaced. Otherwise, elections workers said, the process went smoothly.
“People have been happy and pleasant,” said Susan Bacon, a Republican poll worker at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Browne’s Addition, who sat side-by-side with Mary Virginia Kennedy, a Democratic observer.
Exact turnout figures won’t be available until all the absentee ballots are in, but more than 250,000 voters registered in Spokane County this year.
Voters who thought they were registered but weren’t on the rolls, or showed up at the wrong precinct, were allowed to cast provisional ballots. Those ballots, along with the names, addresses and signatures of those voters, will be reviewed over the next 10 days to determine whether they can be counted, Elections Supervisor Paul Brandt said.
County Auditor Vicky Dalton estimated as many as 8,000 provisional ballots would be cast.
Also to be counted in the coming days are tens of thousands of absentee ballots that will arrive in the mail. Nearly 63,000 of the mail-in ballots had arrived early enough to be processed and counted by 8 p.m. Tuesday. That’s about half of all ballots mailed out.
Among the last of the mail-in ballots were those issued to patients at Deaconess Medical Center. Although state law requires most absentee ballots to be issued by the day before an election, it makes a special exception for hospital patients, voters who may be least likely to know they wouldn’t be able to make it to the polls on Election Day.
That was the situation for Tom Faulkner, a 51-year-old systems engineer for Agilent Technologies, who said voting is a family affair at his household, and has been ever since his children were “about 2 feet tall.” Now they’re old enough to vote, too.
“As soon as dad gets home, everyone gets in the car and we go to the polls,” Faulkner said.
But when he suffered a heart attack last Thursday morning and had a quadruple bypass that afternoon, “I figured there was no way I’m going to get to vote.”
But Tuesday afternoon, Roger Wyssman, a hospital employee, stopped by Faulkner’s room and asked if he wanted an absentee ballot. Wyssman collected signed requests, took them to the county elections office and returned with the absentee ballots for about a dozen patients. When they were marked, he returned them to the elections office.
“I just felt it was too important not to get involved,” Wyssman said.
Faulkner usually votes Democratic but attended his first precinct caucus last spring. He has followed the elections closely for months, and was looking forward to voting.
“This was one of those years when something was getting people fired up,” said Faulkner, whose friends joke he’s “a bleeding heart liberal.”
But as he sat perusing his ballot with a fresh scar down his chest and a heart that has a more efficient blood flow, he marveled at the fact that he didn’t miss an election.
“It was just cool that someone would take the time and have the energy to do that,” said Faulkner.
Ready to vote
Some voters were so eager to cast ballots that they were waiting at the doors when their polling stations opened. At least 30 were in line at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church at 7 a.m., said Glenda Lindsay, the tabulator judge for the South Hill voting site.
“I’ve never seen an election like this before,” said Lindsay, who has worked at the same poll site for eight straight years. “I’m so enthused to see how people are responding.”
Jillian Joseph, 17, isn’t old enough to vote, but the Lewis and Clark High School senior along with two of her friends stood outside the church, opening the door for voters and offering them doughnuts.
“We just want to do our part,” said Joseph, who belongs to a national nonpartisan organization called Freedom’s Answer. “Since we can’t vote, we wanted to thank people for voting.”
Glenn Woodward, who was among the droves of people who cast their ballots at St. Mark’s in the early evening, voted for the first time ever. “I hate politics,” he said. “Kerry and Bush are both politicians. They lie for a living and tell people what they want to hear.”
Despite his skepticism, however, Woodward decided to become a voter this year because he wanted to “have a say in it all.” He voted for Kerry, he said, because “Bush had his chance.”
The split in the country was reflected in Kelly McGinty, 25, and her boyfriend, Jason Pritzel, 27, who left the polling place at Sunrise Elementary School in Spokane Valley Tuesday afternoon.
McGinty voted for Kerry, Pritzel voted for Bush, but the two have found ways to cope.
McGinty has a Kerry sign up in her yard and said being in a relationship with someone who has different political views isn’t that difficult.
“We respect each other’s opinion,” she said.
To which Pritzel immediately replied: “I use her Kerry sign for target practice.”