updated 10/15/2008 3:12:48 PM ET 2008-10-15T19:12:48

More than 540,000 ballots have already been cast in Georgia, including many from the Democratic strongholds of metropolitan Atlanta in what could be an encouraging sign for Barack Obama's presidential bid.

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Black voters have made up a disproportionately high percentage of early voters, accounting for 37 percent of Georgia's early voters. Blacks represent 29 percent of the state's 5.6 million registered voters.

With three weeks to go until the Nov. 4 election, the number of ballots cast early in Georgia has already eclipsed the total number of early voters in advance of the 2004 presidential election.

Georgia elections officials say the number of early voters could ultimately top 1 million.

"Everything we can do to encourage early voters will alleviate the pressures on Election Day," said Matt Carrothers, a spokesman for Georgia's top elections official.

Obama's campaign said the high turnout is a signal of excitement surrounding the election. But Obama spokeswoman Caroline Adelman cautioned not to read too much into the voting bloc's racial breakup.

"A lot of people are voting for Barack Obama and it doesn't matter what their background, their ethnicity is," she said. "It's going to be a historic turnout and we're thrilled to see people voting."

Republican Sen. John McCain's camp said it was encouraged by the record early voting numbers.

"This year is going to generate a historic volume of voters," said McCain spokesman Mario Diaz. "It's encouraging to know that in Georgia most of them will be cast for John McCain. We anticipate the support to only intensify by Election Day."

A new CNN/Time magazine/Opinion Research Corp. poll of likely Georgia voters showed McCain at 53 percent and Obama at 45 percent.

The high interest among black voters could yield a higher overall turnout, which tends to favor Democrats. But Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political science professor, said it's still too early to tell.

"It's a reflection of the enthusiasm gap that we've seen in a lot of polls," said Abramowitz. "Obama voters are more enthusiastic than a lot of McCain supporters. The more important question is whether it will translate into higher turnout."

This is the first year Georgia voters can cast "absentee" ballots in person without providing a reason. It was a change designed to lead to shorter lines on Election Day, when record-setting crowds — and frustratingly long waits — are predicted.

So far, nearly 200,000 of the 540,757 of the early voters are black. Black females have outnumbered black males by roughly 50,000 votes.

Many of the early voters come from left-leaning strongholds throughout the state. Fulton and DeKalb counties, both heavily Democratic metro Atlanta counties, account for more than 90,000 of the ballots cast. Savannah's Chatham County has logged another 16,000 votes.

At a DeKalb County government building on the outskirts of Atlanta, the lines started forming on Monday after breakfast, and they ebbed and flowed all the way through dinner. At times, dozens stretched through the building's narrow halls waiting to cast their ballots.

"I already know who I wanted to vote for, so I did," said Missy Reba, who showed up around 6 p.m. on Monday. "I've heard about the expectations of long lines so I wanted to get it over with."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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