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Votes

Long Lines, Determined Voters at the Polls

With so much at stake in the presidential election and voter registration at fever pitch, long lines were the norm Tuesday at area polling places.

At the Penderbrook community clubhouse in Fair Oaks — where more than 3,000 people from that area, and part of the Waples Mill and Oakton precincts, were eligible to vote — more than 1,500 had cast their ballots by 12:30 p.m.

"When we opened at 6 a.m., a dozen people were waiting," said Rose Declercq, a Fairfax County election officer for the Penderbrook precinct. "By 6:30, we had really long lines and at least 100 people had already come through."

But by 7 a.m., said fellow election officer Carol Lyons, "We had three long lines — two to check in and one to vote." And by 11 a.m., people were waiting an average of an hour and 10 minutes before they finally reached the voting machines there.

Another factor was that one of the five machines there wasn't working. Declercq said there was "a chance" of getting a replacement, later that afternoon. Nevertheless, both she and Lyons were delighted with the turnout. "I'm thrilled," said Lyons. "I've never seen it like this in all the years I've voted."

Added Declercq: "Every now and then, I go outside and tell people, 'Thank you so much for coming. It's wonderful to see such a response; you've made my day.'"

Lyons expected a large turnout "because it's such a close race; everybody's becoming interested, for a change." Election worker Chad Adam said the only voter problems, so far, were people who'd come to the wrong precinct, but workers were able to help them. And, said Lyons, "People with disabilities have been able to vote curbside with paper ballots."

They'd all been on the job since 5 a.m. and, said Lyons, "I don't think we'll get home 'til 9 p.m." Said Declercq: "I was thinking 10 [p.m.]." The polls closed at 7 p.m., but they said everybody in line then would still get to vote.

Meanwhile, voters waited patiently in line outside the building in the midday sun. Penderbrook's Valarie Reese said it was worth it. "Being a black American and a woman, in the past, we didn't have the right to vote," she explained. "And I believe my vote will make a difference."

While not saying outright who she was voting for, she said it's the candidate she believes is "the lesser of the two evils." Said Reese: "I'm against abortion and for adoption and abstinence. And I'm totally for heterosexual marriages. Based on my Christian beliefs, I am against civil unions."

Mary Lou White said she, too, doesn't believe in abortion and was voting for "the lesser of two evils." For her, the war is a major election issue. "I have a nephew in Iraq — he's just 21," said White. "And I want him and all the other soldiers in Iraq to be supported. They're doing a good job."

Liz Culkin said every person should vote because "it's our duty." She believes "the war on terrorism and how it's going to be handled" is the No. 1 issue. The next priority, she said, is "the overall economy — how to get it back on its feet and stronger [after] the past couple years."

MINGWEN SONG also takes his voting privilege seriously. Originally from China, he was voting Tuesday in his second U.S. presidential election. "When I became an American citizen, I took an oath," he said. "And it's very important to my family and me to vote because the race between Bush and Kerry is very close."

The first time Song voted for a president, he chose Bush — but not again. "This time, I'm changing my vote and voting for Kerry," he said. "I really think Bush's economics are bad, and I'm against the war. Why should American people die in Iraq? This time, I'm supporting Kerry."

Also outside Penderbrook's polling site Tuesday was local attorney Dorothy Isaacs. "I'm on the Kerry/Edwards legal team, here to make sure everyone checks that they're registered," she explained. "And if there's any issue, we help people find out where they should go. We do what we can to help facilitate their voting."

Pleased with the turnout, she said, "The most important thing is that everyone participate in the system. It works best that way." Isaacs also passed out water to people in line and even gave Halloween candy to their children waiting with them.

And she did her best to spread good cheer. As one group of voters finally approached the building's entrance, she called out, "The light is at the end of the tunnel; you're getting near the door." Added a co-worker: "At least, it's a nice day and it's not raining."

By comparison, the scene was far different at another polling place, Greenbriar East Elementary in Chantilly. "After about 10:30-11 a.m., there's just been a trickle of people," said Karen Kim, passing out sample Democratic ballots in front of the school. "Maybe after work there'll be a big rush."

A volunteer with the Kerry/Edwards campaign, she said about as many people took her sample ballots as refused them. However, James Mardis — Greenbriar East precinct captain and a worker for the Fairfax County Republican Committee — saw things differently.

HE WAS handing out sample Republican ballots and, said Mardis, "I think this precinct is going Bush — just from the response I see from people not taking the Democratic sample ballots and seeking out the Republican ones."

Inside the school, things were at a lull around 1 p.m. But earlier, said county election officer Robert Berkeley, voting was brisk. "It was very strong in the morning," he said. "Right off the bat, at 6 a.m., we had long lines all the way down the hallway and around the corridor, until about 10:45 a.m."

By 1 p.m., some 1,700 voters had been processed. "We have six voting machines, and the line moved fairly quickly," said Berkeley. "And we have a hand-held computer that was a big help. It took people's Social Security or [driver's] license numbers and told them if they belonged here, or elsewhere."

If they were at the wrong precinct, the computer gave them a printout with the address and phone number of their correct place. "We even took it to people waiting in the line and checked anyone who had doubts about where he should vote," said Berkeley. "It saved a lot of time."

Election officer John Kuchenbrod said they started work at 5 a.m., setting up voting machines in the cafeteria. "And we put up signs showing the sample ballots so voters could know what the bond issues and constitutional amendments were," he said. "That way, they'd know what they were going to be asked to vote on, before getting in here."

Overall, said Kuchenbrod, things went smoothly at the Greenbriar East precinct: "The public has been very cooperative and patient." He also noted something interesting he'd discovered. "People who live across the street from this school — on the south side of Point Pleasant Drive, between Majestic Lane and Middle Ridge Drive — don't vote here," he said. "Because of the way the boundaries are drawn, they vote at Greenbriar West."

For Greenbriar resident Carolyn Carter, leaving Greenbriar East at 1:30 p.m., voting was a breeze. "I drove by the schools all day while I was doing errands, and they were mobbed," she said. "So I brought a Nora Roberts book and ate lunch first, before coming here, so — if I had to stand in line — I'd be prepared."

Instead, said Carter, it took her less than five minutes to vote. "And that's just because I stopped to chat with someone," she said. "I came at just the right time. The man in there told me I was smart."