Tennesseans Rush to Cast Votes Ahead of Severe Weather

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennesseans headed to the polls on Super Tuesday, trying to punch ballots in time to beat severe weather expected to move into the state by late afternoon.

Voters were greeted with unusually mild temperatures in the 70s, but a front moving into West Tennessee was expected to bring strong storms with damaging winds, hail and a chance of tornadoes.

"We're very confident that when these elements converge there's going to be some very dangerous weather," said Johnathan Howell, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Memphis.

Several West Tennessee school districts, including Memphis, planned to dismiss students early to allow them to get home before the storms. Polling sites at schools were scheduled to remain open until the statewide closing time of 7 p.m.

"I would encourage voters: If they can go ahead and vote, vote," state Election Coordinator Brook Thompson said. He said he urged local election officials to stay in touch with their local authorities to make sure they are aware of weather conditions in their areas.

Despite the weather, Thompson said he still expected turnout to beat the 830,000 votes cast in the 1988 Democratic presidential primary when Tennessee's own Al Gore was on the ballot. In the last two presidential cycles, the state's primary has been held after Super Tuesday.

Linda Ster, a 44-year-old social worker, voted in a mostly Democratic precinct at Belmont University in Nashville, where one of the presidential debates will be held in October.

She said she made up her mind to vote for Illinois U.S. Sen. Barack Obama on Monday night, based mainly on the war in Iraq. Obama has promised to withdraw troops in 16 months and has repeatedly criticized the war.

"I don't just want change, I want radical change. I think Obama can bring a more radical change," she said. "I have voted for a Clinton already. I want something different -- way different -- this time."

Daniel Casey, a 51-year-old salesman in Nashville, said he voted for New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and said he's fine with extending Bill Clinton's legacy.

"I thought the Clinton days were great, and I want them back," Casey said. "Obama might very well do a good job. But for me, he's too much of a wild card."

A record number of voters had already taken advantage of two weeks of early voting, with 320,939 of the state's 3.3 million active registered voters already casting ballots.

Perhaps some voted too early, before former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson dropped out of the race two weeks ago. Republicans turned to other candidates or had the option of voting for Thompson, who remained on the ballot.

Katie Mitchell, a 24-year-old who works at a graphic design business in Chattanooga, said she voted for McCain. She said she has liked him since hearing him speak at her brother's graduation from The Citadel in 2002. Mitchell added that her brother is now a Marine, and she can relate to McCain's military background.

"I felt like his stance has always been pretty constant," Mitchell said.

Carlene Nilson, a Franklin retiree, said she voted for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney because he shares her very conservative values.

She said she was interested in Thompson, but waited until Tuesday to vote to see which candidates' campaigns still had life. Thompson dropped out two weeks ago after a disappointing third-place finish in South Carolina.

"My son wasted a vote on (Thompson) in the early voting and now my son says, 'I wish I hadn't voted early,"' Nilson said.

Some decided to stick with Thompson anyway.

"He is on the ballot. He is way better than whatever else is available," said James McCoy, a 34-year-old systems analyst in Knoxville.

Local races in Knox County swelled voter turnout on Tuesday. It was the first election since a dozen county office holders were turned out by a term-limits court ruling and their replacements were ousted over backroom dealmaking that violated the state Sunshine law.

"There is a different mood this year," said John Hoffman, a volunteer election inspector. "I see it on the faces of the voters. There is a stealy-eyed determination that they are going to be heard. And we will find out tonight what they are saying."

Laurie Alford, a Knox County school board candidate challenging an incumbent, remarked on the unusually warm, clear weather. "Sunshine may have finally come to Knox County," she said.

Some voting machines at two Knox County precincts crashed early Tuesday morning, causing minor delays that irritated anxious voters. Both precincts' computers were up and running shortly after being reset by technicians, Election Administrator Greg Mackay said.

"I think it was operator error more than anything," Mackay said.

In Nashville, one precinct had to move its polls from a library next door to a church because of sewer problems, Election Administrator Ray Barrett said.