By Laura Crimaldi and Ira Kantor  |   Tuesday, January 19, 2010  |  

More than 23,000 people voted in Boston during the first two hours of voting in the special U.S. Senate election to choose a successor for the late Edward M. Kennedy in a nail-biting contest between GOP state Sen. Scott Brown and Democrat Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Brown, Coakley and Independent candidate Joseph L. Kennedy are on the ballot.

City figures show 23,667 people voted as of 9 a.m. Voting was heaviest in West Roxbury’s Ward 20, where 2,626 people voted. Morning turnout was the lightest in Ward 15, which covers parts of Dorchester. The city said so far 313 voters cast ballots there.

President Obama’s national health care plan, the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and Massachusetts’ reputation as the bluest state lie in the balance as voters head to the polls.

Brown, who was once considered a long-shot candidate, is leading Coakley in several polls. The Bay State has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972.

Medical student Sabrina Carie, 26, a native of Haiti, said she voted for Coakley at Fenway High School because she favors the health care reform plan in Congress.

“I need the health care bill to pass. I want to be doctor,” Carie said. “I think health care is a right.”

Another Fenway High voter, Misha Kogan, 22, said he voted for Brown. Kogan described himself as a independent, but said his family votes Republican.

“Based on what I’ve read and heard about him I feel he’d be a good candidate for the position,” he said.

Coakley told reporters this morning she is not paying attention to polls and predicted she will prevail over Brown.

Secretary of State William F. Galvin projects between 1.6 million and 2.2 million voters out of a total of 4 million will cast ballots. More than 105,000 voters have applied for absentee ballots.

Voters are encountering snowflakes en route to the polls, however, the total daytime accumulation is expected to be less than one inch.

Boston Election Department Chairwoman Geraldine Cuddyer said some precincts made it just in time to open promptly at 7 a.m. There are 358,882 registered voters in the city and 1,400 to 1,500 poll workers at 254 precincts.

“I think we’re going to have clearly a far more larger turnout than anyone would have expected several months ago,” Cuddyer said.

Cuddyer predicted turnout could be has high as 20 to 30 percent and possibly rival last November’s mayoral election when a little more than 31 percent of the city’s voters cast ballots to send Mayor Thomas M. Menino to a historic fifth term.

“You’re going to have lots of people from all sides getting out there and wanting to make sure their vote counts,” Cuddyer said.

“All the sudden it just blew up and by then the registration deadline was gone,” said Green. He added a bill authorizing same-day voter registration has languished in the Legislature.

MassVote is dispatching 50 volunteers to polling locations in Boston and Chelsea.

The battle between Brown and Coakley has become nasty in the final days of the campaign.

Coakley voted this morning at the Brooks Elementary School in Medford, where she encountered a heckler who trailed her to her car, saying, “What about my future, Martha?”

He was met by Coakley supporters who responded, “What about your future, loser?”

Green said he is optimistic the “air of nastiness and thuggery” will not morph into voter intimidation.

“I am very hopeful that it will not material at any polling places,” he said.

Voter Lawrence Boucher, 63, of Boston, said he’s supporting Coakley because she helped him recover his pension from State Street Bank.

“I was due a pension from State Street Bank and I never received it,” Boucher said. “I called Coakley’s office. They contacted State Street Bank. State Street called me up apologizing. It shows she was running a tight office. Hopefully, she’s another Ted Kennedy.”

Brown voted at the Delaney Elementary School in Wrentham at 9:30 a.m. His election night rally will be held at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.

He told Herald columnist Margery Eagan on WTKK (96.9-FM) he’s operating on four and a half hours sleep and is already looking for housing in Washington, D.C.

“I’m looking into military housing,” he said. “An officer can get a billet for 20, 30 bucks a day.”

One of his supporters, who declined to give her name, said Coakley is too liberal.

“In terms of my political ideology she seems much further left than I’m comfortable going,” said the 30-year-old woman.

 Coakley is on a statewide sprint that includes stops in Boston, New Bedford, Fall River, Springfield and Worcester.