Pa. voters turn out in big numbers

April 22, 2008 7:29:10 PM PDT
Pennsylvanians like World War II veteran Bill Stabilito eagerly headed to the polls Tuesday to vote in the high-stakes Democratic primary, generating a large turnout at schools and firehouses from West Philadelphia to the working-class Pittsburgh suburb of Bellevue. The election capped a successful six-week campaign by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who defeated rival Sen. Barack Obama.

Stabilito, 83, a retired machinist from the Philadelphia suburb of Roslyn, couldn't wait to vote for Clinton.

"This woman here, she has the experience. She knows what politics is. She knows how to run the country," he said. "We need her bad. We need her real bad because the guy we have down there now made one hell of a mess of this country."

Secretary of State Pedro Cortes projected 40 percent to 50 percent turnout among the state's 8.3 million registered voters, which includes Democrats, Republicans and independents. That compares with 21 percent overall turnout in the 2004 primary and 18 percent in the 2000 primary.

Cortes could not say whether Democrats broke their 1980 record of just under 55 percent turnout. It did not appear likely, based on returns from more than half of the precincts statewide.

But the numbers in many areas were still impressive.

"I have never seen a polling book this thick," said Sheryl Simons, a poll worker in a West Philadelphia ward where voters include college professors, students and lower-income city residents. "The debates and the candidates coming to campus ... really heightened interest."

A voting problem hotline run by the Philadelphia League of Women Voters received about 750 complaint calls, the most in at least a decade, said chapter president Kelly Green. Most came from the Philadelphia region.

Cortes said the problems statewide were comparable to previous elections he has run, if not less prevalent. That is remarkable considering the microscope Pennsylvania was under this time around, he said.

Kirk Mills, 49, of Pittsburgh, did not have any problems voting for the first time in about nine years. This year's presidential race was too important to miss, he said.

"Before, everything was kind of cut-and-dried, same old, same old," said Mills, who voted for Obama. "But now that we've got Clinton and Obama in there, it's time for a change, and I think one of them two can do it."

Penn State student Colin Cwalina, 19, wore his loyalties on his sleeve: He sported a "Hillary 2008" T-shirt at the polls in State College. But he was outnumbered by Obama supporters, including Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno - son of the school's famed football coach Joe Paterno - who reached out to prospective voters at the student union.

"To be honest, Barack Obama has a cult" following on campus, Cwalina said.

In Philadelphia, the group Voter Action sought a court order to keep polls open until 10 p.m. amid complaints about long lines at eight polling places and a lack of emergency ballots to replace malfunctioning machines. A judge denied the request at about 6 p.m., said John Bonifaz, a Voter Action attorney.

Zack Stalberg, president of Philadelphia government watchdog group The Committee of Seventy, said complaints to his organization tended to focus on "mundane" problems such as electioneering and inaccurate campaign literature.

"Under the circumstances, I think it could have been a bumpier election," Stalberg said.

Cindy Wiedl, 50, a full-time student at Harrisburg Area Community College, stood before the voting machine for several minutes before choosing Obama, based in part on his pledge in a Tuesday morning television interview to help working people.

Her husband, Anthony Wiedl, a 55-year-old supermarket cashier, voted for Clinton, but said he, too, "kept listening to what Barack was saying, and the wheels were turning."

The sustained party split worries Katia McKiver, 35, a flight attendant who voted for Obama in Lower Macungie Township, near Allentown.

"The longer it goes on, the more division will be created and it will be great for the Republicans," said McKiver, who said she would vote for Clinton if she were the nominee.

The candidates spent millions of dollars on TV advertising in recent weeks and squared off in Philadelphia for the 21st debate of their campaign. The presumed Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, did little campaigning here.

Still, he got a vote from Andy Schink, 34, in the Pittsburgh suburb of Bellevue.

"He won't raise taxes as much as the Democrats," the married financial adviser said, "and we all pay too many taxes right now."

Associated Press Writers JoAnn Loviglio and Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia, Bob Lentz in Levittown, Marc Levy in Susquehanna Township, Michael Rubinkam in Lower Macungie Township, Genaro Armas in State College, Daniel Lovering in Pittsburgh and Ramesh Santanam in Bellevue contributed to this report.