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Unprecendented Voter Turnout in US Election as First Polls Close

Several battleground states were witnessing "unprecedented" voter turnout Tuesday, Nov. 7 for the US presidential election, officials said, with initial fears of a procedural meltdown so far proving largely unfounded.

A queue of early morning voters

Voters started early in what many see as the most important election in recent memory

Despite the high turnout -- expected to reach records in several states amid massive campaign efforts to register new voters -- problems were minor in Florida, Missouri, Ohio and Virginia, states that Republican John McCain and his Democratic rival Barack Obama have fought over tooth and nail in weeks leading up to Election Day.

In Missouri, a bellwether state which has voted for the presidential winner in every election since 1904 with just one exception, officials were seeing a massive voter response.

"We do have unprecedented turnout," Laura Egerdal, communications director for Missouri's secretary of state, told reporters, noting that long lines were seen in scores of precincts.

"I think today we are easily going to set a record for the sheer number of voters turning out today," she said, adding that the state could also surpass the record 78 percent turnout seen back in 1992.

The state added 342,000 new first-time voters to its rolls in 2008, comprising more than eight percent of Missouri voters, Egerdal said.

Early morning voting in Kansas City was marred by the misplacement of voting books in some precincts, which delayed poll openings, but Egerdal said the problem was remedied. Lines were common in Virginia, too.

"It's a phenomenal turnout," Virginia's secretary of state Jean Jensen told a news briefing, noting that up to 40 percent of the state's registered voters had cast their ballots by 10:00 am.

"Some (precinct officials) said 50 percent of Virginians who are eligible to vote have already been to the polls."

The traditionally red, or Republican, state of Virginia has been under assault by Obama and his campaign, who see wresting it away from Republicans as a key to victory.

Jensen noted there had been several minor problems reported to authorities, including two polling stations opening late due to human error, the malfunction of some optical scanning machines, and allegations of voter suppression and intimidation, including advocacy groups "being overzealous in their outreach."

Record turnout was expected in North Carolina -- where some polls call the race a virtual tie -- despite a steady rain falling across the southeastern state.

"I feel certain we're going to exceed 70 percent voter turnout," breaking the state record 69 percent in 1984, said Johnnie McLean, deputy director of North Carolina's board of elections.

"We have had lots of new voter registrations, record-breaking absentee voting" and huge early voting turnout in the two weeks prior to Election Day, McLean said.

The hard-fought swing state of Ohio was on track for an 80-percent voter turnout, according to the secretary of state's office.

Voters fill out ballots at a table on US Election Day in Kansas City, Missouri

Reports of problems at the polls have been trickling in

Jeff Ortega, of Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner's office, said Brunner's preparations for high numbers of voters helped minimize Election Day problems and keep voter lines down to manageable levels, although some polling stations saw lines of an hour or longer.

"It looks like those efforts bore fruit," Ortega said.

But election protection website 866ourvote.com did report receiving reports of Ohio voters being "inexplicably dropped" from lists of registered voters -- an issue that had dogged the 2004 election.

A Realclearpolitics.com poll average shows Obama leading McCain in Ohio by 2.5 percent on Tuesday in Ohio, which is considered a must win for McCain.

The last person to win the presidency without winning Ohio was John F. Kennedy in 1960. In 2004, Bush won Ohio by only 118,000 individual votes.

In Florida, scene of an Election Day debacle four years ago that led to a controversial recount, election officials reported no major incidents or problems in Miami Dade and Broward counties.

But there were news reports of voting machines breaking down and needing replacement in two Sarasota precincts.

Candidates campaigning to the wire

Meanwhile McCain and Obama were makeing their final pushes for votes in key battleground states.

McCain campaigned in Colorado where he claimed he had regained momentum and expressed confidence that he would defeat Obama when all the ballots are counted.

"I feel momentum," McCain said in one of his final rallies in Grand Junction, before polling stations close Tuesday evening. "We are going to win this election, we are going to win it right here in Colorado."

McCain has campaigned aggressively in the last days of the election in states like Colorado, Pennsylvania, Florida and Indiana, where polls have shown that the race is tightening. He was expected to fly back to his home state Arizona to wait for the results.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., accompanied by his wife Cindy, places his ballot into a box while voting in the 2008 presidential election

McCain and his wife cat their votes in Phoenix, Arizona

Obama held his final campaign rally Monday night in Manassas, Virginia, another battleground state, and was in Indiana Tuesday to meet with voters. In the evening he will be back at his campaign headquarters in Chicago to watch ballot returns.

Officials were prepared for an unprecedented turnout as voters delivered their verdict on Democrat Barack Obama, 47, and his Republican rival John McCain, 72, after the longest and most expensive campaign in US history.

Democrats are hopeful that eight years of President George W Bush's unpopular policies in Iraq and the slumping economy will persuade voters to hand them control of the White House and strengthen their control of Congress.

If elected, Obama would be the first African American president in US history. If McCain wins, he will be the oldest president ever to begin his first term.

It was a bittersweet end to the 21-month campaign for Obama: His grandmother Madelyn Dunham, 86, passed away after a battle with cancer, the Illinois senator revealed Monday.

Candidates join the throng to cast votes

Obama returned to Chicago, the city where his rise to prominence began, to cast his vote. His running mate Joe Biden voted moments later in Wilmington, Delaware.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama

Barack Obama was still working crowds as polls opened across the country

McCain voted in Phoenix before flying to Colorado, while his vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin went home to Alaska to vote and said she felt "optimistic and confident."

"I hope, I pray, I believe I'll be able to wake up as vice- presidential elect and work in transition mode with John McCain ... it's great to be home because forever I'll be Sarah from Alaska," Palin told reporters.

An aggregate of major national polls compiled by realclearpolitics.com gave Obama 51.9 per cent to McCain's 44.4 per cent on Tuesday.

But in the state-by-state, winner-takes-all US system, presidential campaigns focus on key battleground states, and McCain was still hoping to pull off an upset victory by winning in states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Millions already took to the polls in recent weeks for early or absentee voting allowed in 31 states, including key battlegrounds Florida, North Carolina, Colorado and Nevada.

More than 31.9 million people voted early, according to Professor Michael McDonald, who runs the US elections project at George Mason University, Virginia. This was 25.1 per cent of the total vote in the 2004 elections.

An estimated 140 million people are expected to vote Tuesday, up from 121 million in 2004.

Clintons look ahead to hopeful Democratic victory

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton arrived late on the Obama support trail

Former president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary -- who lost out on the race to the White House -- voted in Chappaqua, New York. "It's really for me a tremendous opportunity and honor to be part of what I hope will be a great couple of years for America," she said.

Voters waited patiently in serpentine queues early Tuesday to cast ballots. Many had started lining up before dawn; some braved pouring rain to cast their ballot.

In Washington, the capital where more than half of residents are African American and where Democratic presidential candidates historically easily prevail, voters were expected to endorse Obama's message of change.

Fred Owens, an African American standing outside Hine Junior High School in the city's Southeast district, said he voted for Obama because "we need a change," and downplayed the role of race in his decision.

"I wouldn't really say it has anything to do with black," Owens said, adding that McCain didn't have a clear plan of the direction he wanted to lead to nation. "McCain sounds fake to me," he said.

Paul Taylor, a 29-year-old African American student in Chicago said he voted for Obama, but race was not an issue for him. "To support somebody because of their pigment is superficial," he said.

In Miami's Cuban-American community, which traditionally prefers Republicans for their hard-line stance toward Havana, Carmela Rivera, a black Cuban-American, smiled as she showed off a Republican badge and photograph of McCain.

"I suffered a lot in Cuba. I do no want to relive what I went through there," Rivera said.

Battleground states there for the taking

Presidential campaign buttons are sold by a sidewalk vendor in New York.

Results in some of the most important states are still proving to hard to call

In Virginia, another battleground state which has not gone into the Democratic column since 1964 but where polls were showing Obama with a slight lead, some Republicans were worried the state was slipping away.

"I think it will be closer, but it's pretty clear what the outcome's going to be," conceded Meredith Ellsworth, a 57-year-old Arlington, Virginia resident out volunteering for McCain.

According to tradition, voting began at the stroke of midnight Tuesday in a handful of remote towns in the north-eastern state of New Hampshire. The residents of Dixville Notch have been meeting in the town's ballot room at midnight each election day since 1960.

Obama won the town's poll by 15 votes to six for McCain, in a departure from 40 years of Republican loyalty.

All states -- except for Alaska and Hawaii -- opened at various times till 10 am (1600 Central European Time). The last polls will close in Hawaii at 0500 CET and Alaska at 0600 CET respectively Wednesday.

Although election results are scheduled to start coming in about 0100 GMT Wednesday, western states could also play a big role this year, with results expected to filter in well after 0400 CET.

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