COLUMBIA — Early morning rushes followed by steady streams of voters were the rule of the day at polling places around Columbia and Boone County on Tuesday as area citizens joined those across the state and country in choosing the next president and new slates of officeholders.
In Columbia, voters are choosing among candidates for Congress, state Senate and three seats in the Missouri House of Representatives. They also are casting ballots on five statewide measures and a city water bond issue.
For most voters, however, it was the tight race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain that captured their interest and motivated them to get to the polls. Many wanted to get there as soon as possible.
"I was in line to vote at 6 o'clock," said John Young, 64, who voted at Oak Towers. "Every election is important to me. ... I'm kind of one of those cornballs that believes democracy is an everyday event."
Election judge Bobby Smith said that by 11:30 a.m. more than 500 voters had cast a ballot at Oak Towers. More than 120 of those came in the first hour.
"The turnout is about the heaviest I've seen in the 14 elections we've been working," Smith added.
That story was typical. At Parkade Elementary School, a line of nearly three dozen voters queued up even before the door to the polling place had opened. Some waited more than a hour for the chance to be among the first to cast ballots.
A little north and east on Blue Ridge Road, a steady stream of cars pulled into the parking lot of Grace Bible Church most of the morning. Most people were in and out in less than 10 minutes, but some deliberated over their ballots longer.
Although there was no mad rush, election judge Isaac Keene was impressed by the turnout.
"There've been as many voters already today as in the August primaries all day long," he said at 8:30 a.m.
Outside the church, people were jovial, talking to acquaintances or running with their kids under the tape that divided the polling place from electioneering efforts. More adults showed up with children in tow than not.
The lighthearted spirit seemed to permeate the polls. At the Armory Sports and Community Center on Ash Street, the mood was uplifting. People spoke of the excitement they felt about being involved in such an historic election.
At the Ashland Senior Center, you didn't need the "VOTE HERE" sign to tell this was a polling place. The steady flow of cars and trucks into the parking lot made it obvious the building was in full electoral swing. Yard signs of varying size and color surrounded the party-neutral center. Signs supporting everyone from top-ticket candidates Obama and McCain all the way down the state House candidates Chris Kelly and Ed Robb offered last-second advertisements for voters who might not have made up their minds.
Married couples and lone voters came and went at a snail's pace, but voted quickly. The polling atmosphere was relaxed, but folks seemed ready for the whole election hoopla to end.
"It feels good (to have voted)," Natalie Barnard, 27, said. "I'm ready for all the advertisements to be over with."
Steve Roberts, 37, came out early to cast his ballot. "I'm something of a political junkie," he said. "I have a little more mixed feelings about it all being over."
Vana Thach, 38, admitted thatalthough he's been registered to vote for a few election cycles, this was the first time he had bothered to cast a ballot.
"The economy has never been like this bad," he said."I came in because I'm worried about the economy. That's what made me make up my mind on who to vote for."
At the Columbia Public Library, a steady flow of early voters shuffled up the stairs past an Obama campaigner who steadfastly reminded each not to forget to get free coffee at Starbucks. Voters came alone and in groups, many in an outwardly cheery mood. The early rush arrived between 6:45 and 8 a.m., but lines never formed outside the library. Around 8:15 a.m., the media rushed to interview gubernatorial candidate Kenny Hulshof entering with his family to cast a vote.
At Forum Boulevard Christian Church, almost 50 people were lined up as the polls opened. Most kept to themselves in the gray morning light and moved quickly through the line. By the time the sun rose, the line had become a constant 10 to 15 people deep. Those in line helped newcomers find the correct alphabetical section. Friends, neighbors and co-workers greeted each other with cheerful hellos.
"They have coffee in there," they told each other.
East of the church was a sight to behold, considering college students and 5:30 a.m. are often mutually exclusive.
But at Campus Lodge, an apartment that houses mostly students and a polling place on Old 63, election officials said students began lining up at 5:30 a.m. By the time the polls opened at 6 a.m., there were about 15 to 20 people waiting in a line that ran from the voter check-in desk out the door.
"The line was out to the street until 6 a.m. They were excited, we were excited," election official Elaine Blodgett said.
By 8:35 a.m., 222 voters had cast their ballots, and the long line had dissipated.
"It's been steady," Blodgett said. "You can always tell how interested people are in an election if you don't have a break. We've always had people standing here, waiting to vote."
Mark Brumbach, who has served as an election judge for about 10 years and worked in the Kansas City, Kan., area during the 2004 presidential election, said Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren anticipated the high turnout and prepared for it.
"Maybe one of the most significant changes (is) that, in the past at a polling place like this, you might have four or five people. We have 11," Brumbach said. "In my opinion we have two times as many election judges than we have had in previous elections. Wendy Noren said this will be the biggest election ever in Boone County, and it's obviously turning out to be that way."
Missourian reporters Spencer Willems, Hayley Tsukayama, Catherine Martin, Molly Harbarger, Amanda Woytus, Chris Dieterich, Joel Walsh and Casey Smith contributed to this report.