HELENA – State election officials are bracing for a big turnout as Montanans head to the polls Tuesday to cast the final ballots in the historic race between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The contest for the Democratic presidential nomination has generated tremendous excitement in the state. And both candidates have spent a great deal of money registering voters and persuading them to vote early in the Montana primary — the last in the nation along with South Dakota.
Democrats hope the enthusiasm will carry over to the November elections — while election administrators simply hope to make it through Tuesday without too many long lines.
The primary will be the first in Montana where voters can register on the same day they vote. In the 2006 general election, the same-day registration resulted in long lines with some voters waiting to cast their ballots well after the normal closing time.
Administrators are preparing for the same.
“I expect my polls to be very busy tomorrow,” Missoula County Clerk and Recorder Vickie Zeier said Monday. “Today was very busy with late registration. I think tomorrow will be just as busy, if not busier.”
The presidential campaigns brought a lot of money to the state with full-time staffers and advertising. They also brought get-out-the-vote campaigns that Montana is not accustomed to seeing during the primary season.
“We’ve had really heavy absentee voting,” said Duane Winslow, Yellowstone County clerk and recorder. “We’ll just have to see how tomorrow plays out.”
Matt Chandler, an Obama spokesman, said the campaign would keep pushing voters to the polls through Election Day. The Clinton campaign has been engaged in similar efforts.
The Montana Secretary of State expects the highest proportion of voter turnout in years. Spokesman Bowen Greenwood said the office is estimating 47 percent of registered voters will cast a ballot.
“We are hearing from counties that we are expecting huge turnout,” he said. “There is a high level of interest out there in this election.”
Montana Democratic Party Chairman Dennis McDonald said the party will try to take advantage of the excitement to build its organization. The money spent by the presidential candidates could help recruit volunteers and attract more people to the party.
“It’s an exciting time,” McDonald said. “I think what we have seen is that this primary race has generated a lot of interest.”
Montana never expected to be the center of political attention at the tail-end of the primary calendar. Observers say it is the first time in recent memory that the June election meant so much — even though most expect Obama will secure the nomination soon.
“It’s really quite remarkable,” said Kenneth Bickers, a University of Colorado political analyst who has been following the Montana race. “There aren’t enough delegates to make up the difference for Clinton. Clearly she is hoping for lightning to strike.”
Polls have shown an edge for Obama in Montana. But MSU-Billings political scientist Craig Wilson said the state’s open primary, where anyone can vote the Democratic ticket, could make it tight.
“The real key are the independents. They will probably decide this thing,” Wilson said.
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