The line at the courthouse to vote early was 40 minutes long Monday and the polls had officially closed at noon, but Stefan Ziolkowski, bringing up the rear, wasn't about to budge.
"I want to go hunting tomorrow," the 22-year-old said.
In Yellowstone County, he was officially the final person to cast an absentee ballot before poll workers closed shop to prepare for a crush of voters on Election Day.
Across the region, voters waited in line to cast their votes today after the polls opened at 7 a.m.
In Billings and across Montana, elections officials say the flurry of absentee voting since Friday has been intense. After casting ballots at a pace of 10,000 a day last week, early voters doubled that pace during a day and a half of voting Friday and Saturday.
As of Sunday night, 175,054 early votes had been cast, out of a
total of 202,563 Montanans who requested them, said Bowen Greenwood, spokesman for Secretary of State Brad Johnson.
The total far surpasses the 119,000 absentee ballots case in 2006.
The tally of absentee votes is expected to surge through today as the mail arrives and new voters register and vote on the same day.
By Monday morning, 666,532 Montanans had registered to vote, or about 32,000 less than the record 698,260 registered for the 2000 general election.
Johnson is projecting that more than 70 percent of Montana's eligible voters will turn out.
The heightened interest in this year's election may be in part to the sinking economy. And that could push voters to support Barack Obama, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said during a Monday visit to Billings. It's even possible the Democratic presidential candidate could eke out wins in Montana, North Dakota and other swing states, Daschle said.
He said the region's early allegiance to Republican John McCain over gun rights, land use policies and other perennial Western issues had shifted with the economic slowdown.
McCain campaign spokesman Tom Steward countered that Obama's plan to "spread the wealth" is the last thing that small business owners want to hear. He said they are among many voters who remain committed to McCain despite the nation's economic problems.
"Barack Obama spent millions and millions of dollars in Montana," Steward said. "He still is not going to convince enough voters there that he's interested in mainstream Montana values."
In Bozeman on Monday, early voters lined up two abreast, winding for an eighth of a mile west down Main Street from the Gallatin County Courthouse.
"It's crazy, the line in front of the courthouse probably extends to Fifth Avenue," said Charlotte Mills, Gallatin County election officer. "We've had 384 people since 7 a.m.," which didn't include the people waiting down the street.
At noon, Mills sent a poll worker west two blocks to mark the end of the line and keep latecomers from piling on. Ziolkowski was voter 480 in Billings. In Missoula, 607 people pushed through the polls in five hours, said Debbe Merseal, chief deputy clerk and recorder.
Elections officials were hopeful that early voting would make crowds more manageable Tuesday, the final day to vote. Gallatin County in particular had Election Day lines so long during the 2006 election that people who lined up before the 8 p.m. deadline were still voting at midnight.
Voter preparation will be key to making things run smoothly this Election Day. For the second general election in a row, Montanans are allowed to register to vote right up through today. The best way to get that done is to bring some form of photo identification and something with your address on it, said Duane Winslow, Yellowstone County elections officer. But everyone, newly registered or otherwise, needs some form of identification.
"A utility bill and a Costco card works, a motor vehicle registration if it's got your name and address on it. Everyone needs ID," Winslow said.
Voters also need to know the precinct to which they are assigned, Winslow said. The Secretary of State's office rolled out an online precinct locator and status verifier for the general election this year. Voters can go to www.mt.gov, click on the "vote" campaign icon at the top of the page and get directions to their precinct, as well as an update on their voter status.
The polls are open today from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Montana Women Vote and health care professionals in Billings expressed concern that an important health care initiative will be overlooked. Initiative 155, which will cover up to 30,000 uninsured Montanan children, will appear at the bottom of the election ballot this season.
At issue is something called "down-ballot" voting, or voting the entire ballot of candidates and ballot questions. Oftentimes, new voters, or voters who are primarily motivated to vote for a specific candidate do not complete the entire ballot.
"It's pretty typical to see down-ballot voter drop off rates of 15 to 20 percent," said Stacey Faldetta of Billings Montana Women Vote, a statewide coalition that has helped 10,000 low-income women register to vote since 2004, and helped collect signatures to qualify I-155 last spring. "But this year, we're expecting a 30 to 40 percent drop-off, which is bad news for I-155."
The primary reason voter advocates are anticipating higher numbers of voters not voting down-ballot is because of the number of voters entering the voting booth for the first time. An estimated 36,000 new voters are eligible to vote this election.
Dr. Mike Downing, of RiverStone Health, said he's also concerned about voters overlooking I-155.
"Here is an opportunity for Montanans to rally for the expansion of health care coverage for our state's children," said Downing. "Montana has one of the highest rates of uninsured children in the nation, and we know that kids without insurance are less likely to get care for common conditions, and especially dental work. A good place to put our support is in the health and education of our children, our future. Better access and more funding could mean more private dentists participating in CHIP programs."
As the final day of campaigning closed Monday, candidates from around the state put the finishing touches on their campaigns. Gov. Brian Schweitzer campaigned in Missoula with fellow Democrat and candidate Sen. Max Baucus. The two then flew to Billings for a last-minute rally.
Republican candidate for governor, Roy Brown, rolled into Billings at 2:30 p.m. after conducting a three-day convoy across Montana, which featured appearances with lone U.S. Congressman Denny Rehberg and Republican attorney general candidate Tim Fox.
Gazette State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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