Turnout, as expected, has been heavy throughout Ocean City into Tuesday afternoon as voters went to the polls for a nine-way council race and an initiative to change the government's alcohol laws.
At issue is a ballot question that asks voters if they want to roll back a 1984 law that bans alcohol consumption in city restaurants. Instead, the proposal would permit patrons to bring their own bottles to certain restaurants between 2 and 11 p.m.
The referendum is binding, and if approved, would take effect immediately.
Usually about half of the city's 9,000 registered voters come out during the city's non-partisan May elections, but with a ballot question asking voters to permit BYOB restaurants, a large majority of residents were expected to vote Tuesday.
The public library on Simpson Avenue was bustling as a main polling place -- noticeably more so than in other recent elections.
Beth Bowman, a Board of Elections judge at one of the polls in the library, said she thought turnout was going to be as high as she's ever seen in her more than 30 years as a poll worker.
"I think it's going to be as high as a presidential election," she said around 1 p.m., after more than 70 people had voted from the section she was overseeing.
Different polls were more crowded than others as some polling places were assigned to areas with more seasonal residences. The library and St. Frances Cabrini Church were seeing the high volume Tuesday since they are located near many of the homes where people live year-round.
A number of people walking out of the library said they had voted no on the proposal on Tuesday afternoon, but it said something about how contentious the issue has become that most did not want their name attributed to the opinion.
"We just like it the way it the way it is," said Charles O'Brien, a 12-year resident, after voting against the initiative. "You can always go across the bridge."
By 6:30 a.m., four people had voted in the Culliney Hall of the St. Frances Cabrini Church, where voters in four of the city’s 20 precincts vote. Polls are open until 8 p.m., and results are expected before 9 p.m.
John Lindekens, 75, cast his vote against the BYOB issue, saying he did not want Ocean City to change.
“The first step is the referendum,” Lindekens said in the light of the rising sun. “It starts innocently enough. It could become a full liquor license.”
The issue and subsequent campaign has been generally framed as a fight between residents who fear changing the long-established family-friendly character of the resort town to something akin to “The Jersey Shore.” Supporters who want to open up the town say competition from neighboring communities that permit liquor sales is critically undermining Ocean City’s restaurants.
The city has been dry for more than a century, ever since Methodist ministers seeking to establish a Christian seaside resort purchased the land in 1879 from a man who had used it to store slaughtered whales.
On Tuesday morning, the 16 poll workers sat inside the church hall, talking with one another and reading copies of The Press. Poll worker Janet Budnick said she anticipated relatively heavy turnout this year by supporters and opponents of alcohol.
“I think it will be,” Budnick said, “only because of the question on the ballot.”
The law would exclude Boardwalk businesses, and keep intact the prohibition on alcohol sales in the city that bills itself as “American’s Greatest Family Resort.” Restaurant owners could also decide to not allow alcohol in their establishments.
Nine candidates are also running for four City Council seats. For more information about the election, where to vote and how to get results, go to www.OCNJ.us/Election.