ATLANTA (Reuters) - A record-breaking 2 million people cast early ballots in the U.S. state of Georgia, an indication of high enthusiasm over Tuesday’s presidential election that could help Democratic candidate Barack Obama.
Some residents waited eight hours in chilly weather to cast their ballots during the week of early voting that ended late on Friday.
The turnout in Georgia surprised election officials who estimated that as many as 35 percent of the state’s 5.7 million registered voters cast their ballots early, but they did not extend the period in which early voting was allowed.
Just over 20 percent of the state voted early in 2004.
North Carolina and Florida, which also faced large early voting crowds, both extended their early voting hours.
Black Americans made up some 35 percent of those who voted early in Georgia this year, according to state figures, and most are likely to have backed Obama, who would be the first black U.S. president.
Obama, an Illinois senator, faces Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain in the election to succeed President George W. Bush. Polls show Obama leading McCain nationally and in most of the battleground states where the race will be decided.
Of the 50 states, 34 allow early or in-person absentee voting. The turnout in Georgia mirrors increased participation elsewhere, with reports of long waits common across the country.
“I knew there would be a long line but I would rather spend an hour now rather than three on election day,” said Maria Dangerfield, who lined up to vote in Decatur, Georgia.
Georgia has been a Republican stronghold in recent presidential elections -- Bush won it by almost 17 percent in 2004 -- but recent polling lists the state as a toss-up with McCain holding a 4 percent lead, according to the Real Clear Politics website.
Obama will spend more than $100,000 on four days of television ads in the state, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper.
The Obama campaign’s strategy in Georgia, like that in other southern states with a significant minority of black voters, such as Virginia and North Carolina, is to boost turnout among African Americans while narrowing its deficit among whites.
Voting in the south is often racially polarized, with white voters backing the Republican party and blacks voting Democratic, according to Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
Black said more whites could vote Democratic this year because of disaffection with Bush, but it would still be difficult for a Democrat to win the state.
In 2004, Democratic candidate John Kerry won only 22 percent of the white vote in Georgia.
Editing by Patricia Zengerle