LITTLE ROCK — Tens of thousands of voters across Arkansas cast ballots as early voting ended Monday on the eve of the state’s potentially historic general election.
Republicans are heavily favored to sweep all four U.S. House races and have made a strong push, aided by a flood of out-of-state cash, to gain majorities in both chambers of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction in Tuesday’s election.
Voters also will decide ballot initiatives that would legalize marijuana for medical use for the first time in the Bible belt, add a half-cent to the state sales tax to fund a $1.8 billion highway bond issue and allow local governments to create tax-funded development districts.
The Secretary of State’s office said 439,262 voters cast ballots during the two-week early voting period that began Oct. 22 and ended at 5 p.m. Monday, eclipsing the 2008 early-voting total of 402,904. This year’s total comprises 27 percent of the state’s 1.6 million registered voters and includes 33,022 votes cast on the final day of early voting.
Secretary of State Mark Martin earlier predicted 65 percent of registered voters would cast ballots in the general election.
Polls open at 7:30 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. The National Weather Service forecast mostly sunny skies statewide with highs in the lower 50s to mid-60s on Election Day.
By mid-afternoon Monday, more than 1,000 people had cast ballots in downtown Little Rock at the last of nine early-voting venues in Pulaski County still operating on election eve. The line extended around the block and voters were experiencing about a 45-minute wait to cast ballots, said Melinda Allen, director of the Pulaski County Election Commission.
At Jonesboro’s election annex, lines ran out the door and onto the sidewalk. Craighead County Deputy County Clerk Marla Lewis estimated that 1,800 people had voted by 2 p.m.
"It’s been that way since we opened the door, and there were people waiting at 7 when we came in early to prepare for the day," Lewis said. "It’s just wild. Welcome to our world."
Early-voting places opened at 8 a.m. Monday and closed at 5 p.m.
Jefferson County Clerk Patricia Johnson said more than 600 had voted at the courthouse in Pine Bluff by mid-afternoon and more than 11,000 had cast ballots since early voting began.
Early voting also exceeded 11,000 in Sebastian County, chief deputy clerk Nesa Bishop reported, including more than 1,300 that had cast ballots by mid-afternoon Monday. Ballots were being cast at county courthouses in Greenwood and Fort Smith.
"We’re not out the door, but we have had a steady flow all day," Bishop said.
In Fayetteville, Washington County Clerk Karen Combs Pritchard said poll workers at the county courthouse were "bombarded" by early voters. She said she did not know how many had voted Monday, but nearly 25,000 had cast ballots since early voting began.
Despite the influx, election officials were pleased with the early turnout.
"I’m sure we’ll have some lines at our polling places (Tuesday), but it makes it nicer when people vote early," Allen said.
State GOP Chairman Doyle Webb said Monday he felt "very confident" Republicans would sweep the congressional races and win state House and Senate majorities, reflecting what he described as a years-long shift in the political leanings of Arkansas independents.
"Then to push that along, the liberal policies of Barack Obama helped define the state Democratic Party as the liberal party and the Republican Party as the conservative party," Webb said. "Further, we have presented a plan and our candidates have run on that plan of efficient and effective government, job creation, better economic and educational opportunities, and lower taxes. The Democratic Party has continued to offer the status quo."
Will Bond, chairman of the state Democratic Party, issued a last-minute appeal Monday to get out the vote.
"This election presents a clear choice for the future of our state: One where we continue our Arkansas success story instead of moving our state backwards and reversing the progress that has been made on jobs, education, tax cuts and our balanced state budget," Bond said in a letter to supporters.
State Democratic Party spokeswoman Candace Martin said she expected Democrats to retain control of the state House and Senate.
"The majority of Arkansans think that our state is on the right path," she said.
The Democratic Party said it had set up a hotline voters could call if they experienced any problems while voting.
Also Monday, former President Bill Clinton endorsed Democrat Herb Rule in the 2nd District congressional race against Republican incumbent Rep. Tim Griffin.
Clinton and Rule have known each other since the mid-1970s. Rule introduced Clinton to golf and worked with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Rose Law firm in Little Rock.
Gov. Mike Beebe planned to cast his ballot at 10:30 a.m. at West Race Baptist Church in Searcy, according to his public schedule.
The major parties planned watch parties to monitor election returns Tuesday night — Democrats at Cotham’s in the City restaurant in downtown Little Rock and Republicans at the Embassy Suites hotel in west Little Rock.
Members of Arkansans for Compassionate Care, sponsors of the proposed Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act, planned to gather at Vino’s pizza parlor in Little Rock while the measure’s primary opponent, the Christian conservative Family Council, also planned to hold its watch party at Embassy Suites.
Democratic Party’s voter protection hotline numbers: