Lines stretched around buildings and down city blocks as people waited hours to cast ballots in the historic presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain. Touchscreen voting machines malfunctioned in some precincts, yet voting Tuesday appeared to go smoothly.
The biggest trouble was big crowds. But folks seemed to take it in stride.
“People are happy and smiling,” Sen. Benjamin Cardin said as he visited a polling place at a Maryland school. “People are very anxious to be voting. They really think they are part of history, and they are.”
In the East, electronic machine glitches forced some New Jersey voters to cast paper ballots. In New York, eager voters started lining up before dawn, prompting erroneous reports that some precincts weren’t opening on time.
In the West, Californians also faced long lines, but voting went smoothly. In Orange County, south of Los Angeles, about 400 people were on hand to treat problems with the county’s all-electronic voting system, said Brett Rowley of the registrar’s office.
“We’ve got paper ballots as a backup,” he said.
Heavy rain plunged a handful of Los Angeles polling places into the dark, forcing some to move voting booths outside until electricity was restored. Voting didn’t stop.
In Texas, record numbers of voters who cast ballots before Election Day were credited with easing turnout on Tuesday. There were some hourlong waits and traffic was steady, but voting officials reported few problems. During that state’s primary, long lines stretched for hours and ballots ran out.
“It’s amazing,” said Jacque Callanen, elections administrator for Bexar County, home to San Antonio. “There’s happy people out there.”
At Virginia’s George Mason University in Fairfax, Provost Peter N. Stevens sent a campus-wide e-mail announcing a bogus electronic notice had been sent to all students saying Election Day had been moved to Wednesday.
“I am sure everybody realizes this is a hoax, it is also a serious offense and we are looking into it,” he wrote.
Turnout rates as high as 80 percent were expected in Virginia and California, the country’s most populous state and the highest holder of electoral votes.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell urged voters to “hang in there” during Tuesday’s huge showing in that hotly contested state.
Hundreds converged on polling precincts in Missouri, another crucial battleground site. Norma Storms, a 78-year-old resident of Raytown, said her driveway was filled with cars left by voters who couldn’t get into nearby parking lots.
“I have never seen anything like this in all my born days,” she said. “I am just astounded.”
In some places the wait lasted hours, and lines stretched for half a mile.
“Well, I think I feel somehow strong and energized to stand here even without food and water,” said Alexandria, Va., resident Ahmed Bowling, facing a very long line. “What matters is to cast my vote.”
Some voting advocates worried that – tolerant voters or no – the nation’s myriad election systems could stagger later in the day, when people getting off work hit the polls.
“We have a system that wasn’t ready for huge turnout,” said Tova Wang of the government watchdog group Common Cause. “People have to wait for hours. Some people can do that. Some people can’t. This is not the way to run a democracy.”
Ohio, which experienced extreme voting delays in the last hours of the 2004 election, had some jammed paper problems in Franklin County. “We’re taking care of things like that,” said elections spokesman Ben Piscitelli. “But there’s nothing major or systemic.”
Perhaps the most bizarre barrier to voting was a truck that hit a utility pole in St. Paul, Minn.’s Merriam Park neighborhood. The accident knocked out power to two polling stations for about 90 minutes. Joe Mansky, Ramsey County’s elections manager, said voting continued at those sites.
Election judges said the ballots were kept secure at one of the locations until the power was restored and the ballots could be run through an electronic machine, while a backup generator kicked in at the other site.
Late Monday, McCain’s campaign sued the Virginia electoral board, trying to force the state to count late-arriving military ballots from overseas.
McCain, the Republican candidate and a POW during the Vietnam War, asked a federal judge to order state election officials to count absentee ballots mailed from abroad that arrive as late as Nov. 14.
Late Tuesday, the judge ruled he will hear the lawsuit on Nov. 10. He ordered election officials to keep late-arriving ballots until then.
In Pennsylvania, lawyers for the NAACP’s Philadelphia branch filed a lawsuit to force Philadelphia County election officials to count emergency paper ballots when the polls close Tuesday. Election officials have said they planned to count these ballots Friday.
Lawsuits have become common fodder in election battles. The 2000 recount meltdown in Florida was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court.
What is uncommon about Tuesday’s contest is the sheer number of voters expected to descend on more than 7,000 election jurisdictions across the country. Voter registration numbers are up 7.3 percent from the last presidential election.