They lined up shoulder to shoulder inside the gray high-rise downtown, their politics as diverse as their backgrounds. An ex-felon who needs health insurance, followed by a high school student seeking empowerment, followed by a Marine Corps veteran who wants to prevent his country from crumbling.
Like hundreds of others, their quests led them to the Wake County voter services office earlier this month to register as Democrats for the first time. The line of newcomers that snaked across the checkered tile floor was emblematic of those that have formed across the country this year: black voters, young voters, lifelong Republicans switching parties -- all registering in record numbers, and all aligning as Democrats.
Elections Director Cherie Poucher waited for them behind a counter with a jar of pens and a 10-inch stack of registration forms. She had hired 10 people from a temp agency to help handle the rush on this final day of North Carolina voter registration. Now, as she watched four more people file through the door, Poucher wished she had hired more.
"In 20 years," she said, "I've never seen anything quite like it."
The past seven states to hold primaries registered more than 1 million new Democratic voters; Republican numbers mainly ebbed or stagnated. North Carolina and Indiana, which will hold their presidential primaries on May 6, are already reporting a swell of new Democrats that triples the surge in registrations before the 2004 primary.
The contest between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama has engaged enough new voters to change the political makeup of the country, experts say. The next several months -- and the general election in November -- will reveal the extent of the shift. Is it a temporary increase in interest resulting from a close election between historic candidates? Or is it a seismic swing in party realignment that foretells the end of the red-blue stalemate?
"We are likely to set an all-time record for primary turnout," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "Whether this makes a major historical impact depends on who these voters are and whether or not they get what they want."
'I want to vote'
Jason Robertson, 29, walked through the voter services door a few minutes after 2 p.m., wearing a stained, long-sleeve T-shirt and a black winter cap. He had extended his lunch break to come here, and he needed to be back at work in an hour. He makes brochures in a small printing shop in a warehouse off the highway. It's a good job, and he intends to keep it.
Work had become hard to find after he picked up a felony drug charge five years ago. His cousin found him the gig at the printing shop, but it can offer him only 30 hours of work each week. Robertson dreams of opening his own shop, or applying for one of those cushy jobs printing for the state. "It's crazy," he said. "They're paying, like, $15 an hour."
Robertson always thought the felony charge disqualified him from voting, until his girlfriend picked up a registration form last month at a hair salon and read the fine print (ex-felons may vote in North Carolina if they complete all terms of their sentence, such as probation or parole). She brought it home to the two-bedroom apartment they share with their four children and told him to fill it out.
"You're always talking about wanting change," Kim Fowler told him. "Now you can help make it."
Fowler, a longtime voter, met Robertson at a post office four years ago, and her interest in politics rubbed off on him. She took him to see "Fahrenheit 9/11," and volunteered at Obama's local office. More cynical than hopeful, Robertson wasn't the volunteering type. "George Bush cheated in both elections, and Congress should all be thrown out," he said. But lately he felt compelled by a new sense of political urgency.
"Damn it, man. I want to vote," he said. "There's no money, no jobs, and I want to feel like my vote is counting for something.
"I want them to answer me, 'What happened to the middle class?' You got rich, you got poor, and everybody is going in one of those directions."
Lately, Robertson has been sliding ever closer to broke. Since he moved in with Fowler, he has supported a household of six, including his 2-year-old son; Fowler's 10- and 8-year-old daughters from a previous relationship; and a baby they share. A few months ago, Robertson paid $632 -- a solid two weeks' wages -- to have the baby circumcised.
Medical bills have devastated their bank account, because Robertson and Fowler lack health insurance. Last year, Robertson's hand was caught in machinery at work, slicing his right index finger to the bone. His trip to the emergency room resulted in nine stitches, and he has been paying for them ever since. Three hundred dollars for anesthesia. Nine hundred for an X-ray. Six hundred for stitches.
Robertson considered asking his boss for help with the medical bills, but the company doesn't offer insurance, and he needs the job.
That is why, on the day he registered to vote, Robertson dropped off the form Fowler had given him a few days earlier and turned right back around, headed for work.
Her dream, too
Kyla White, 18, had planned to go straight to the voting office after seventh period at Enloe High School, but now she wondered if she would ever make it there. With 10 minutes left before the final bell, her teacher had just locked the door and called a Code Red, signaling imminent danger on school grounds. As instructed, White moved away from the window, hunched under her desk and tucked her head to her knees.
For 15 minutes, she listened for gunshots.
It turned out to be a false alarm caused by a suspended student on school grounds -- just like the Code Yellow earlier in the afternoon and the morning bomb scare that forced all 2,400 students to evacuate to the football field. At the end of the school day, as White walked out to her 1997 Honda with classmate Janay Lovelace, the two friends agreed: They would still drive downtown to register.
"We've got to," White said. "Life just isn't supposed to be like this."
As a senior in high school, White spent most of her time waiting on forces beyond her control. College applications, curfews, Code Reds -- she had no choice but to wait them out and hope for the best. On her Facebook profile page, she displayed a countdown to the landmarks of empowerment. Graduation: 63 days. Move in at North Carolina State: 126 days.
Voting: 25 days.
Her parents, postal service employees who met at North Carolina State, have voted in every presidential election since they turned 18. They encouraged Kyla to register.
She would cast her ballot, she told them -- but on her own terms. She wanted to vote for a multiracial America, one in which peers wouldn't call her "too white" for being one of a handful of black students in the Enloe honors program. She wanted to vote for no more Code Reds. She wanted to vote for lower gas prices.
She wanted to vote for Obama.
Her gas tank was near empty when White turned the ignition of her car to drive to voter services on that Friday afternoon. She spends almost $40 a week on gas, and she makes only about $120 each week working part time as a receptionist at Sports Clips. To afford driving, she started to skimp on meals out with friends. Snoopy's sold 99-cent hotdogs on Tuesdays. The nearby Mexican buffet cost only $3.99 at lunch.
Luckily, the drive to voter services was just 1.6 miles -- probably about $1 round trip, White guessed.
"I want the American dream of having a better life than your parents," she said, "and days like this just don't seem very dreamy."
'Not going to sit at home'
Al Landsberg, 66, approached the counter of the voter registration office at 4 p.m., an hour before deadline. Hefty, with a hint of sweat on his white mustache, he looked as drained as the employees behind the counter who rested their heads in their hands. Voting exhausted him. Ever since he cast a ballot for Ronald Reagan, Landsberg has always felt as though he was trying to choose the lesser of two evils.
For this election, though, he decided he had no choice but to vote. A lifelong Republican, he planned to switch his party affiliation so he could vote in the Democratic primary. That Hillary Clinton wasn't great, he said, but she was just as good as presumptive GOP nominee John McCain and a heck of a lot better than that other guy, "you know, uh, Embowa. He'd take this country right down the tubes."
Landsberg's wife, Evelyn, collects porcelain dolls, and her co-collectors send the Landsbergs frequent political e-mails, most of them critical of Obama. "From what I can tell, if he becomes president he will refuse to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and we will leave Iraq unprepared," Landsberg said. "I'm not going to sit at home and let that happen."
He needed something to do, anyway. He recently retired after five-plus years in the Marine Corps and 40 years in the printing business, and Evelyn still works at an electrical supplier. Their three children moved out long ago. The Landsbergs save what extra money they have for three or four annual trips to Las Vegas, where they can find a cheap hotel room, play the dollar slots and smoke -- indoors and in peace.
‘A vote against nobody’
They never travel outside the United States, save the occasional Caribbean cruise. "Anything you want to see, you can see it right here," Evelyn said. Plus, they prefer to spend their tourist money at home, just as they buy only American-made cars. Not enough people look out for America these days, Landsberg said.
Like McCain, with his free-and-easy stance on immigration, which seems almost identical to Clinton's. Landsberg's father had come from Germany, first jumping ship illegally and then, after a few years and some English classes, through Ellis Island. He met Landsberg's mother during the legal immigration process.
"Anybody who came here illegally should have to leave, and I mean now," Landsberg said. "If McCain's not offering me that, I don't really see what he's offering. A vote for Clinton at least means you vote against Embowa, instead of voting for McCain, which is a vote against nobody."
He dropped his form over the counter and watched it disappear into the stack.
At 5 p.m., Poucher locked the front door at voter services and stared at the mound of registration forms piled behind the counter. Wake County had received at least 16,000 forms in the past week, and hundreds more would arrive by mail. At about three minutes per form, Poucher's office had just inherited more than 800 hours of work.
Poucher, 60, planned to work 16-hour days for the next week -- a schedule made complicated because the busiest election of her life had collided with one of her life's craziest times. Her husband died two years ago, leaving her to raise three grandchildren on her own. On Friday, she rushed home from the office at 6 p.m., dismissed the daytime nanny, fed her two dogs, readied her 11-year-old grandson for hockey practice and doled out vitamins for her twin 9-year-old grandsons.
While her night-shift nanny helped put the twins to bed, Poucher retreated upstairs to her laptop. She wanted to input data for at least 150 new voters by the end of the night.
It was pretty mindless work, really, and her fingers danced while her mind wandered. She thought about her husband, his ashes in an urn on the shelf above her. She thought about 1972, when she ran for local office in Chicago and learned the devastating power of each individual ballot. She lost by 12 votes.
Mostly, she thought about the names on the screen in front of her. Who were they? What did they look like? Whom would they vote for? Each form held its own mystery, a new character to ponder in the electoral drama to come.