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HELENA - Montana election officials are expecting almost half of all registered Montana voters to show up at the polls tomorrow, a blow-out voter participation rate for a primary election, which are usually widely ignored.

"We're hoping for 47 percent turnout," said Bowen Greenwood, a spokesman for Brad Johnson, Montana's secretary of state and the highest elections official in the state.

As of late last week, about 1,000 more Montanans were registered to vote than in 2006. And compared to 2004, the last presidential primary, there's better than 32,200 new voters registered.

Montana's early June primary is always one of the last in the nation. This year, Montanans and South Dakotans will be the very last Americans to cast presidential primary ballots.

That late date, combined with Montana's few nominating delegates, usually means the fireworks have long since died down by the time our election rolls around and the Montana vote decides nothing.

But this year, front-runner Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has a thin lead over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Their bout is still in full swing and the vote margin between them is slim. That means Montana's 17 nominating delegates are actually a prize to be fought over. Both candidates have made multiple campaign stops in the state and both sides are running television ads tailored specifically to Montana voters.

All the hype ads up to more voters, say county elections officials from around the state.

One early peek into voter turn-out is the number of people who vote early or with absentee ballots. In that regard, Greenwood said, tomorrow's election is looking to be a hot one.

So far, better than 68,000 Montanans have already voted, Greenwood said, a "dramatic increase" over the last presidential primary election in 2004.

"Absentee (votes) are running at a general election level," he said.

So far, the state has received more than three times as many absentee ballots as it did in the 2004 presidential primary, statistics show.

In Missoula County, a Democratic stronghold, there's already almost as many early and absentee ballots cast so far as in a general election, which typically see much higher turnout, said Debbe Merseal, chief deputy clerk and recorder there.

In Cascade County, home to Great Falls, another Democratic stronghold, more people have already returned absentee ballots or voted in person early than voted in the entire 2006 primary election, said Rina Moore, the Cascade County elections administrator.

"For the first time ever we are getting attention," Moore said.

And it's not just the Clinton vs. Obama race driving the hype. Many counties have hot local races. In Helena, two contested legislative races are also drawing attention, said Paulette DeHart, the Lewis and Clark County elections administrator.

"There's just a lot of interest and that's a good thing," she said.

Regina Plettenberg, Ravalli County elections administrator, said she anticipates high turnout Tuesday, up to 65 percent. Such high involvement is almost unheard of in a primary election. Statewide, Montana hasn't seen voter turnout numbers that high in a primary for 36 years, secretary of state statistics show.

Yellowstone County has also seen a jump in voter registration. As of late last week, more than 94,000 citizens there were registered to vote, said Barb Cox, the county's registration clerk.

Aside from sheer numbers, many workers in Montana's elections offices said they feel a difference with this election.

Said Mary McMahon, Butte-Silver Bow election administrator Friday: "It's been busy, very busy all day."

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