As we await perhaps the most exciting Election Day of our lives on Tuesday, we … hold on, with early voting, it’s already Election Day(s) in North Carolina.

If you’re not yet registered, you can still do so and cast your ballot at early-voting sites this week in every county. (Check your county Board of Elections Web site for the exact places and hours.)

Early voting ends on Saturday, and the hours that day are limited. On Tuesday, Nov. 4official Election Daythere’s no more same-day registration. Voting Tuesday is limited to those who registered by Oct. 10.

Early voters are in demand. John McCain was in Fayetteville Oct. 28 in pursuit of early voters. And when Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden was in Raleigh Oct. 23, the first thing he said to the 4,000 folks who greeted him at Meredith College was: “Vote early. It counts just as much.”

Barack Obama was scheduled to hold an “Early Vote for Change” rally on the state government mall in Raleigh Oct. 29. And many early voters have already turned out for him.

It was a carnival atmosphere in Southeast Raleigh Saturday afternoon, courtesy of the Obama campaign, including a march from the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial garden to the early-voting site at Chavis Community Center in Raleigh’s historic African-American neighborhood.

State Rep. Dan Blue (D-Wake) was cheered when he sent off about 200 walkers with a call not just to vote, but also to pitch in every day as campaign volunteers, and to keep a diary for their children and grandchildren.

“That way, we will be on the right side of history, and history will belong to us,” Blue declared.

At Chavis, the marchers joined several hundred more folks already in line to vote or sporting “I Voted” stickers. Kendrick Lee, a first-time voter, was among the latter. A 31-year-old Raleigh call-center worker and music producer, Lee was taking pictures to show his young son some day.

Lee said he’s never followed politics. But he’s seen what happens when he doesn’t vote, so this year he decided to try it the other wayespecially since watching the presidential debates has become, in local bars, “like watching the Super Bowl.”

Obama strikes him as someone who really will try to change things, Lee continued. But “even Kobe” (basketball star Kobe Bryant) “needs a team behind him and supporters in the stands.”

Watching the festivities, the president of Wake County’s African-American Democratic caucus, Marshall Harvey, was joyousand solemn.

“I would say this is one of the greatest events of my lifetime,” Harvey said. He was a teenager living in Washington, D.C., when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated. “That was a great day,” he recalled. “But this is going to be greater. There’s a lot of hope. A black man is going to be president. I’m just proud to see it.”

Monday afternoon at the Lake Lynn Community Center in North Raleigh, early voters waited 30 to 45 minutes, at least until it started to drizzle. Almost all were white, with Democrats and Republicans seeming, from a small sample, to be equally represented. But even here, as at Chavis, it was the Obama backers who gushed about Tuesday’s prospects, while McCain supporters gritted their teeth.

“I’m completely revved up,” said Ruth Lyons, an Obama voter. “I couldn’t wait until Election Day to do it.”

“Excitement? That’s part of it,” said Richard Wynne, a computer technician who used part of a vacation day to vote earlyfor Obamaand couldn’t stop smiling about it. “I’m more interested than I’ve ever been.”

On the other side, several McCain voters said they’d pulled into the early-voting site on impulse as they were driving by.

Janie Guarnieri, a real estate agent, said she’s “absolutely” for McCain, adding that Obama “is taking our country socialistic.” People who work harder should be allowed to keep their profits, not have them redistributed to others, she added. “I think if Obama wins, he’ll put a lot of people out of business.”

Jack Packer, a retired business executive, said he voted for McCain and thinks, despite the polls, McCain will win.

“I think it depends on who’s doing the polling,” he said. “Most polls are liberal. The conservative polls are closer.”

One voter who stopped to talk quoted Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg’s comment that Obama is a visionary like JFK.

But she declined to give her name. The subject of politics at home is so sore, she said, that she didn’t want her husband to read that she had voted earlyand for Obama.

Will the dramatic Democratic turnout advantage continue? Tom Jensen, an analyst with Raleigh’s Public Policy Polling, says no, or at least not to the extent the early voting results would indicate. PPP’s surveys indicate, rather, that more Democrats who intend to vote (and more African-Americans) are indeed voting early; Republicans are more willing to wait until Election Day.

Still, independents are breaking for Obama by almost 2-to-1, PPP finds, and the likely African-American vote is projected to be 21 percent of the total.

Much may depend on folks like the older man whom Obama volunteer and former Raleigh City Council member Anne Franklin spoke with on the phone last week.

This man has never voted, nor registered, Franklin said. (One-third of the adult population has never voted.) He called to ask about where he could vote that would be easiest for his daughter to park. But soon it became clear that he had no idea what was in store for him if he tried. “When I told him, ‘You know, you can bring your daughter with you when you go in to vote,’” Franklin said, “I could hear him sigh. It was a sigh of relief that, yes, now he knew he could do it.”

According to the State Board of Elections, more than 1.4 million votes had been cast in North Carolina through Oct. 2723 percent of the 6.2 million registered voters. The figure eclipsed the total 984,000 early votes in the 2004 electionwith five days to go.

In heavily Democratic Durham and Orange counties, the numbers were even higher: About one-third percent of voters in Durham and Orange had cast early ballots by Oct. 27.

That turnout jibed with the state elections board report that 58 percent of the early voters statewide are registered Democrats, while just 25 percent are registered Republicans. And the statewide turnout was heavily African-American, the board reported: Black voters accounted for 28 percent of early voters, though they make up 21 percent of the population; they accounted for just 18.5 percent of the turnout four years ago.

In 2008, it’s the Democrats who can’t wait to vote, especially black Democrats, since Obama is on coursethe polls sayto become the first African-American president.

New African-American voter registrations comprise 31 percent of the total in the state since the start of the year271,000 out of 875,000 total new registrants through last Thursday.