High Voter Participation in Big Sky Country
By Karl Vick
MISSOULA, Mont. -- Polling places across Montana were busy throughout the day, with Big Sky voters pleased to be bringing up the rear in an epic Democratic primary season where every vote appeared to matter.
"All the indications we're getting from county election offices point towards very high participation levels," said Bowen Greenwood, spokesman for Montana secretary of state Brad Johnson. Although no turnout figures will be available until after polls close at 8 p.m. Mountain time, officials were looking for 47 percent of registered voters to show up, a jump of 10 percent over the last presidential primary.
"It's been pretty steady all day," said Debbe Merseal, chief deputy clerk and recorder in Missoula County, where the handsomely domed courthouse thrummed with the arrival of late afternoon voters.
Missoula is a college town, home of the University of Montana Grizzlies, usually a good sign for Barack Obama. And though school has been out for a fortnight, his campaign sees hope in the more than 11,000 absentee ballots on hand, many left behind by students who don't linger to enjoy the splendid Montana summer.
Statewide, officials sent out about 105,000 absentee ballots, which would account for about a third of all votes cast -- the robust rate usually associated with a general election, Greenwood said. All voters are given both a Republican and a Democratic ballot and left to choose in private which to fill out.
"I voted for the wife and she voted for me," said Mark Burgad, 62, behind the counter in his Bell Pipe Shop. Questioned further, the proprietor admitted, "I voted for Hillary. E-yuh."
"Tell you the truth, I don't really know," Burgad said. "Tell you the truth, I don't really like any of 'em. Obama's got some very childish approaches to things. Hillary can't even balance her campaign funds. And I think McCain's a warmonger. I was in the same war he was. He ought to have mellowed out by now."
He glanced at his watch: 25 minutes til closing. A sign in the window advertised the shop for sale. "Owner retiring."
"Whoever gets in there they just better do something about the danged gas prices," he said, "because it's ruining everything."
On the corner, a young man waved an Obama placard at traffic. A block toward the Clark Fork, roaring with Rocky Mountain runoff, three women worked the phones in a Hillary Clinton campaign office in the loneliness of a converted Firestone dealership.
"Obama," said Mary Werner, 48, outside the courthouse, where she was meeting her son, who would vote for the first time. She is a harpist, playing for the last six years in hospitals, where researchers have found the music aids healing.
"I listened to them all for a long time," Werner said. "There's something I don't like about her.
"I'm a musician. Her voice.
"And," she added, "the package deal."
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