CUMBERLAND — With a higher-than-usual voter turnout expected this fall, state officials are urging local boards of elections to begin preparing now for the Nov. 4 general election.

“I can’t understand why someone doesn’t vote,” said U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin during a recent visit to Cumberland.

That might not be such an issue this November. State officials “have anticipated 82 percent turnout,” said Kitty Davis, administrator of the Allegany County Board of Elections, compared to 31.49 percent turnout in Allegany County in February’s primary election.

“We’re going to be busy, we hope,” Davis said. “That’s why we’re here.”

There are plenty of reasons to expect a large turnout. There’s the presidential race between presumed party candidates Barack Obama, Democrat, and John McCain, Republican. There is no incumbent candidate — a scenario that typically attracts more people to the polls, Davis said.

In addition, there are a number of questions on the ballot — common for Californians, rare for Marylanders. Voters will have a chance to decide whether to approve or reject a constitutional amendment to authorize slots in five locations across the state, including 1,500 machines at a proposed $75 million slots parlor at Rocky Gap State Park.

A second question, if passed, would permit early voting at centrally located voting centers for a certain period prior to an election.

Also, Maryland voters can cast their vote to support or reject permitting individuals to vote out of their county of residence from a school or work location.

For example, a student at Frostburg State University, native to Montgomery County, could fail to obtain an absentee ballot. Voters could decide in November to permit the student to vote at Mountain Ridge High School on election day. The student would be allowed to vote only on issues seen on the Montgomery County ballot — he would be excluded from voting for, say, Frostburg City Council or Allegany County Board of Commissioners. The process is referred to as convenience voting.

The Board of Elections staff plans to mail sample ballots two weeks prior to the election — one week earlier than usual — to residents, libraries and senior centers across the county. The idea, Davis said, is to allow voters to familiarize themselves with the ballot and the specific language of each ballot question.

To prepare for possible long lines, Davis said local staff is working to increase the number of election judges and available voting machines and electronic poll books within the next 80 days. They’re encouraging voters to head to the polls between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., “which statewide research shows when our numbers drop,” Davis said.

“With the new electronic polls, you can gauge by hour how many people are going through polling places,” Davis said.

Long lines are just one of many possible reasons why polls would be kept open beyond the 8 p.m. deadline. In February, a state judge ordered all polls open an extra 90 minutes to allow for motorists navigating icy conditions down state, “which may happen again,” Davis said.

“There are several reasons to keep the polls open,” Davis said, including high voter turnout. “It’s a real iffy scenario. We’re not looking for it to happen.”

She said voters who are in line by 8 p.m. will be permitted to vote, regardless whether an extension is ordered.

In the weeks leading up to the election, there are things voters can do to ensure a “positive voter experience,” Davis said.

First, verify voter registration, including address, on the Web at www.elections.state. md.us or by calling (301) 777-5931. Supplemental address forms are to be placed in the same locations as the sample ballots. Voters also can send a signed statement indicating a move to: Allegany County Board of Elections, 701 Kelly Road, Suite 213, Cumberland, MD 21502.

The last day to register to vote in this election is Oct. 14.

Contact Kevin Spradlin at kspradlin@times-news.com.

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