Across the nation, the extended, competitive presidential primary season has caused significant spikes in voter registration, though South Carolina lags behind the trend.

This state had about 6 percent more registered voters in January, on the eve of the presidential primaries, than it had in January 2004, while other states have seen far more sign up.

A national Associated Press survey found voters are flocking to the most open election in half a century, inspired to support the first female president, the first black or the oldest ever elected. Also, the bruising Democratic race has lasted longer than anyone expected, creating a burst of interest in states typically ignored in an election year.

More than 3.5 million people rushed to join in the historic balloting, according to the survey that offers the first such national snapshot. It found registration figures are up for blacks, women and young people. Rural and city. South and North.

Overall, the AP found that nearly one in 65 adult Americans signed up to vote in just the first three months of the year. And in the 21 states that were able to provide comparable data, new registrations have soared about 64 percent from the same three months in the 2004 campaign.

"This could change the face of American politics for decades to come," said

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. She predicted permanent gains for that state's Democrats.

While detailed data are available from only a handful of states, registration seems to be up particularly strongly for blacks and women.

Among the new voters in North Carolina is Shy Ector, 25, of Durham. She favored Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry while a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill four years ago, but never registered to vote. Barack Obama's candidacy was enough to make sure she did this year, she said. "I was like 'Oh, now this is a reason to vote. This is different,' " Ector said. "I was inspired, and I was excited."

New voters are generally less reliable. So there's no guarantee this year's newcomers will stick around in years to come or even cast ballots in November if their candidate doesn't make it.

Even if some discouraged new voters drop off, the numbers are striking.

Consider Pennsylvania and North Carolina, where the primary elections hadn't been expected to matter because they occurred so late in the nominating process.

New voter registrations favored Democrats in North Carolina, which held its primary Tuesday. In the first three months of the year, the number of new Democratic registrants nearly tripled, to 74,590, from those during the same period of 2004. New Republican registrations were up, too, but they only doubled, possibly because John McCain already had seized the GOP nomination.

More than 49,558 unaffiliated voters signed up in the Tar Heel state, compared with just 16,858 in the first three months of 2004. The Democratic primary was the obvious draw, with 85 percent of unaffiliated voters who cast early ballots doing so on that ticket.

Unlike North Carolina, South Carolina voters can't register by party, so it's impossible to measure the partisan leanings of its newest voters.

The overall figures on new registrations were compiled by the AP in a survey of election officials nationwide. Six states and the District of Columbia were unable to provide statistics, meaning the total number of voters who registered between roughly Jan. 1 and March 31 almost certainly exceeds 3.6 million. One of the six, North Dakota, does not require voters to register.

In the 21 states that were able to provide comparable figures from the first three months of 2004, only Iowa showed a decline. That state held its first-in-the-nation caucuses on Jan. 3.

Charleston County had 182,720 registered voters as of Nov. 1, but that dropped to about 175,000 when it routinely changed the status of voters who hadn't been to the polls in two years. Today, however, the county has 183,834 active voters and still is adding hundreds more per week.

South Carolina had 2.496 million voters as of October, but that dropped to 2.24 million by the January primaries, largely because of removing inactive voters. The state's voting rolls had climbed back to 2.32 million as of last month, State Election Commission public information director Gary Baum said.

Still, the January 2008 number was up about 6 percent from the 2.12 million active voters in January 2004.

"That is typical," Baum said, adding that Saturday is the deadline to register for the June 10 primaries. "The numbers should continue to increase slightly, with a larger increase over the late summer, early fall."

While this state's upcoming June 10 primaries don't involve the presidential race, voters essentially will decide who gets to fill local positions such as the 9th Circuit solicitor's seat or several state House and Senate seats.

"A lot of people voted in January and they plan to vote in November, but they don't realize the importance of this June primary," Charleston County Elections and Voter Registration director Marilyn Bowers said. "Many of our offices are decided in the June primary because there's opposition in November."