Let the fun begin - Hundreds vote early in Charlotte

DECISION 2008
Hundreds vote early in Charlotte
Historic contest credited as crowds flock to regional sites on first day
DAVID PERLMUTT
dperlmutt@charlotteobserver.com
It didn't take long to look like a real election.

The opening curtain of early voting in Charlotte drew six times the turnout of 2004, when N.C. voters last held primaries to help elect a president.

Four years ago, about 50 showed up the first day; this time the tally was more than 300. The day even featured a mid-afternoon traffic jam around the Central Piedmont Community College polling site as voters hunted places to park. And the numbers will only grow as more early-voting sites open around Charlotte and the state.

The catalyst: the close-and-bitter Democratic presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, with North Carolina looming as the possible showdown state. The May 6 ballot also offers a full slate of state contests, from governor on down.

"These are really good numbers," said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Elections Director Michael Dickerson, "and everything we do early means that you don't have to worry about it on election day."

Colette Forrest was among the first in Charlotte. She came with 13-month-old son Bobby to vote in the Democratic primary for Obama for president and Beverly Perdue for governor.

"This election is historic," said Forrest, who is black, after voting on the second floor of the Facilities Services Building at CPCC.

"Never have we been in the position to vote for an African American for president and a woman for governor. This is what my ancestors -- my grandparents -- fought for."

Union County elections officials had expected about 50 voters to come to its Monroe office to vote by day's end. They eclipsed that by noon. In all, more than 150 turned out. Cabarrus County drew 173.

Not since 1988 has North Carolina held a presidential primary where the nominees weren't already decided. With the Democratic presidential race still steaming ahead, Terry McAuliffe, head of Clinton's campaign, got on a plane in Oregon to fly to Charlotte. He was scheduled to make five other "early voting" stops Thursday, including ones in Concord and Salisbury.

"This is one of the most important elections we'll ever face," he said. "We've got two wars going on and a battered economy. We need to move this country in a new direction.

"... Today you can start voting, so let's get in and vote early. And let's continue to vote."

Robert Dawkins made it a point to be one of the first to vote in Mecklenburg. It was his third election voting early.

"We've been watching this (presidential) race all these months, and now it's here," he said. "Voting makes it feel real, almost like November."

Angela Lawrence was off work and her mother had her children, so she wanted to make sure her voice was heard in the presidential race.

"It may be too late -- there's been a lot of damage done to this country," Lawrence said. "I vote, so I can complain."

Jimmy Williams, a retired police officer, voted because it is "our precious duty." He voted early because his wife, Charlotte Brown-Williams, is running for district court judge.

"This is the first time I voted early," he said. "Early or not, voting always makes me feel good."