Texas Turnout Big On First Day Of Early Voting

Record numbers of early voters packed polling locations from Houston to El Paso on Monday in what officials said could likely be the start of an unprecedented election turnout in Texas.

Anxious voters, many with the nation's crumbling economy on their minds, smashed first-day early voting records before lunchtime around big cities such as Houston and San Antonio. Then more kept coming.

Dallas County hit a record of 34,421 voters, upstaging the last record in 1996 of 21,960 early voters. Harris County finished Monday with a record 39,201 early voters, an 88 percent increase from the first-day turnout in 2004.

Many still can't return to Galveston County because Hurricane Ike wiped out their homes. But more than 4,000 people voted Monday, a record despite some parts of the county remaining so devastated, early voting reminders were made at shelters.

"It's been busy all day long," county clerk Mary Ann Daigle said.

Travis County's first-day total of 24,207 easily surpassed the previous first-day high of 16,139 set in 2004. "It is a stupendous, overwhelming voter turnout," said County Clerk Dana DeBeavoir.

It wasn't a flawless first day. The unexpected crush of early voters around Corpus Christi caused Nueces County's overwhelmed computer mainframe to briefly freeze up, but officials said it was fixed in 15 minutes.

In Houston, Democratic U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said a glitch with scanning devices at a polling location she visited caused long lines some weren't willing to wait out. A Harris County official attributed the problem to poll workers still learning the scanners.

"Here we are, the first day, again not being prepared," Jackson Lee said.

Hector DeLeon, a spokesman for the Harris County clerk's office, said the issue was being straightened out. State officials reported no major voting problems overall, and most counties chalked up delays to usual first-day glitches.

"These are issues when you're starting up," DeLeon said.

In Travis County, election officials reported to authorities that a man dressed in business attire and carrying a clipboard tried to impersonate an election official at a polling place in a grocery store and give out incorrect information about straight ticket voting procedures for Democratic candidates.

"We're not sure how many people he got to beforehand, but once he got inside he was pretty easily detected and fled," DeBeauvoir said. "This is actually a state jail felony."

She said the man fled in a car with John McCain bumper stickers on it.

The Texas Secretary of State's office said totals from the 15 largest counties wouldn't be available until Tuesday. But whatever the number, it figures to surpass the nearly 190,000 first-day early voters in the 2004 election.

"If it sustains and continues through the 12-day (early voting) period like this, there's not going to be anything close to compare it to," said Bruce Sherbet, Dallas County's elections administrator.

With a record 13.5 million Texans registered to vote in the general election, state officials had projected a huge turnout. A historic presidential race, a nationwide financial meltdown and important Texas congressional races are all expected to bring voters to the polls in massive droves.

At a fire station in suburban Dallas, Carlos Arauz emerged from the polling booth just as a lunch-hour rush of voters began snaking out the front door.

"I was eager to vote," said Arauz, 22, a University of North Texas student. "It's an important election."

At a library in Irving, one voter brought levity to a long line by quipping aloud to another, "this is the line for refunds for Dallas Cowboy tickets."

Apart from the hot presidential race, voters will decide on a U.S. Senate race that features Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Democratic challenger, state Rep. Rick Noriega. Also up for grabs is a spot on the Texas Railroad Commission, several high-court judge positions and congressional and legislative seats across Texas.

A record 8,500 first-day voters had cast their ballots before noon in Bexar County. In El Paso, officials projected that a record 61,000 voters in the March primaries would be surpasses since nearly 22,000 new voters had registered since then.

"And they are still coming in," said Javier Chacon, the county elections administrator.

The early voting period ends Oct. 31.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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