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One of the most hotly contested congressional races in America comes to a close tonight, though the razor-thin margin between Kathleen C. Hochul and Chris Collins means that every last vote may have to be counted before a winner is declared.

With the latest Siena Research Institute poll conducted for The Buffalo News and WGRZ-TV showing a virtual tie between Democratic incumbent Hochul and Republican challenger Collins, voters in eight Western New York counties may face a long wait for results tonight.

Polls are open throughout New York State from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., and when polls close, elections officials face the task of counting more than the usual number of votes. That’s because they anticipate the heavy turnout that traditionally marks a presidential election.

“It’s usually in the 70th percentile,” said Dennis E. Ward, Democratic commissioner on the Erie County Board of Elections, adding that the closeness of the Collins-Hochul contest in the 27th Congressional District could hinge on counting absentee and affidavit votes.

As a result, he said, elections officials are already preparing for the possibility that absentee ballots from the Erie County portion of the 27th District – about 30 percent of the 22,000 absentee and 8,000 affidavit votes received countywide – could prove crucial.

“Every one vote could count,” he said, pointing out the phrase that may prove more than a cliché tonight.

Already, campaign officials are paying close attention to the absentee ballots. Collins adviser Christopher M. Grant said his camp is heartened by what appears to be a “significant” Republican advantage.

He pointed out that while Niagara County has a 39 percent Republican registration, 53 percent of the absentee ballots have been determined as Republican and 36 percent Democratic. In Livingston County, with a 47 to 29 percent Republican-over-Democrat registration edge, 54 percent of absentees have been preliminarily identified as originating with Republicans.

Similar results are reported throughout the district, Grant said.

“We’re seeing Republicans, on average, coming back at a rate about 8 percent higher than registration, while the Democrats are less than 1 percent higher,” he said. “It shows the Republicans are more enthusiastic. They’re sending the ballots back at a higher rate than the Democrats.”

Will any one area of the district provide an early clue about which way the race may end?

Hochul herself last week advised to “watch Wyoming County,” the state’s most Republican county. She theorized that a good showing there could point to an encouraging result for her.

Meanwhile, State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, said his home turf could provide the same clue.

“Niagara County could very well prove the linchpin,” he said.

The newly drawn 27th represents the most Republican district in all of New York State, but Hochul has still managed to mount a strong challenge after winning a 2011 special election – also in GOP turf.

As a result, more than $5 million has so far been spent on the race, mostly on television advertising in the Rochester and Buffalo media markets. And the importance of the seat to both parties was underscored by appearances for Collins by House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and for Hochul by former President Bill Clinton and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Though state officials such as Democratic Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick of Manhattan have expressed concern that the state’s new voting process could cause problems if confused voters incorrectly mark their ballots, Ward said he is expecting few problems.

In the third year of the new electronic voting process, he said, the system works.

“People are getting better at it,” he said. “Fewer and fewer people mismark the ballot.”

Ward said that scanners counting the ballots are “extraordinarily sensitive” and that any marks inside the circles on paper ballots are counted.

Hochul and Collins are not the only candidates competing for a congressional seat in Western New York today, even if they have generated the most interest.

Republican Michael H. Madigan of Grand Island is challenging Democratic incumbent Brian Higgins of Buffalo in the 26th District, while Democrat Nate Shinagawa of Ithaca has run a spirited contest against Republican incumbent Tom Reed of Corning in District 23.

The other big contest gaining statewide attention is the furious battle for the 60th District seat in the State Senate, where Republican Mark J. Grisanti of Buffalo is fighting to retain his seat in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. He faces Democrat Michael L. Amodeo of Hamburg and Charles M. Swanick of Kenmore on the Conservative line. Gregory L. Davis on the Working Families line has not waged an active campaign.

While most of the area’s Assembly races have been low-key, the 145th District battle in Niagara County between Republican incumbent John D. Ceretto of Lewiston and Democrat Robert M. Restaino of Niagara Falls has morphed into a major contest. Maziarz recently described it as possibly the “premier race” in the Assembly this year.

In two significant elections on the local level, voters in West Seneca and Alden will decide whether to “upsize” their town boards after earlier voting to reduce their legislative bodies to three members.

Supporters of all candidates and party volunteers will also be out in force today, knocking on doors, making phone calls and offering rides so voters can get to the polls.

State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said Monday that he has established an Election Day hotline to help ensure that minority language voters, the disabled and others are able to cast effective ballots today. He urged voters to call (800) 771-7755 any time between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. to report problems at the polls.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com