Thousands of residents across the Charlotte region headed to early voting sites on Thursday, waiting in line for the chance to be among the first in the state to cast ballots for the Nov. 6 election.
In Charlotte, about 150 people stood in line at the Hal Marshall Annex before that voting center opened at 8 a.m. An even bigger crowd was reported outside a polling site on the UNC Charlotte campus.
And late Thursday afternoon, the number of people waiting at Independence Regional Library still stretched around the building.
In Mecklenburg County, 15,009 residents cast votes on Thursday, easily surpassing the first-day early voting totals from 2008, according to board of elections website.
Statewide, more than 120,000 voters endured long lines at many locations to vote.
Voters were greeted at polling sites by candidates for state and local offices. The campaigns for President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also held rallies across the state to encourage people to vote early.
At a campaign stop in Dilworth, former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said early voting could help to maintain some of the momentum that has been building behind the Romney campaign in recent weeks.
Santorum said that while momentum was behind Obama four years ago in North Carolina, Romney supporters could rewrite that narrative.
At a rally at N.C. State University, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz also stressed the importance of voting early.
We began our grassroots outreach efforts way back in the beginning of the 2008 campaign, and we never left North Carolina, she said. From here on out, every day is Election Day in North Carolina.
More than 2.4 million North Carolinians used an early voting site in the presidential election four years ago, more than half of all votes cast in the election. That figure includes about 208,000 from Mecklenburg.
Four years ago, early voters gave Obama a 305,000-vote cushion heading into Election Day, helping him squeeze out a narrow 14,000-vote victory in the state. He became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry North Carolina in 32 years.
Mecklenburg Elections Director Michael Dickerson said he thinks the county's turnout in early voting could grow to 250,000 people this time given the popularity of early voting in recent years. The county opened 22 early voting sites at libraries, government buildings and other facilities across Mecklenburg.
Dickerson said the first and last days of early voting are typically the busiest. Some polling sites reported wait times of 45 minutes to an hour on Thursday.
On the final day of early voting in Mecklenburg in 2008, some people reported waiting in line for more than five hours at a polling site at the Plaza Midwood Library.
Dickerson said the county has expanded early voting this year by opening two new polling sites, adding four hours on Saturdays and holding voting on two Sundays instead of one.
Karen Jones of Charlotte was among those who voted Thursday at the Hal Marshall Annex on College Street. Jones, 67, is supporting Obama, saying, in part, that she believes his policies benefit many residents regardless of their age, race or politics.
Jones said she wanted to vote early so she could help assist seniors or others who may need help understanding the ballot or how to use the voting machines. She also warned people against waiting until Election Day in case bad weather or other problems keep them from the polls.
Its better to vote early and if you cant do it the first day, then come back the next, Jones said. (But) dont want to the last minute.
Early Thursday, more than 70 local Republicans and other residents gathered at a rally outside a GOP office in Dilworth featuring Santorum and other local candidates.
Richard Hudson, the Republican 8th District congressional candidate, told attendees that Thursday not only was the start of early voting but the beginning of the great American comeback that Mitt Romney is going to lead us to.
Other area counties also reported a busy day Thursday. In Union County, unofficial results showed that 1,323 people have voted so far.
Gaston County saw just over 3,500 voters by 6 p.m. Thursday, with polling sites still open. Elections Director Adam Ragan said he predicts the county to have 50,000-55,000 people vote early this year, up from about 46,000 in the last presidential election.
Early voting was not without an apparent snag or two. One person reported computers were not working when an early voting site opened at 11 a.m. at Cornelius Town Hall. The voter told the Observer that a precinct worker announced only one of more than 20 computers was working. By 11:30 a.m., about 10 computers were working.
Dickerson said the problem did not affect the voting machines, but was in another piece of equipment. Observer staff writer Steve Lyttle and The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.