Voters wait for hours to cast ballots

November 4, 2008 5:28:34 PM PST
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. Similar problems popped up elsewhere, but were more sporadic than widespread and unlikely to affect the election's outcome, experts said Tuesday evening.

"The majority of them seem to be functioning OK, but there are trouble spots, not unexpected," said Purdue University computer science professor Eugene Spafford, who was watching machine voting issues for the Association of Computing Machinery. "The troubles largely stem from issues of volume, undertraining of personnel and, to some extent, inexperience or unanticipated problems."

Those unanticipated problems included Virginia dealing with rain-soaked voters getting optical scan paper ballots wet and having to wait until the cards dried before mechanically counting them.

In New York City, actor Tim Robbins, an ardent Obama supporter, experienced his own voting problems. Poll workers told him he was not a registered voter. After waiting hours, he was told to visit the election board office, which confirmed what he knew to be true: He's a registered voter. A judge then issued a court order allowing him to vote, and he did - at the same location where his trouble began.

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.

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."

Lawsuits have become common fodder in election battles, and Tuesday saw its share.

In hotly contested Pennsylvania, a judge dismissed a lawsuit by NAACP lawyers that sought to force Philadelphia County elections officials to count emergency paper ballots when the polls closed at 8 p.m. EST. Election officials said they plan to count the ballots Friday.

In Virginia, another electoral battleground, a federal judge set a Nov. 10 hearing in a lawsuit by McCain's campaign, which asked that the state be compelled to count late-arriving military ballots from overseas.

McCain, the Republican candidate and a POW during the Vietnam War, wants ballots that arrive as late as Nov. 14 to be counted. The judge ordered election officials to keep late-arriving ballots until the hearing.

Perhaps the most bizarre barrier to voting was a truck that hit a utility pole in St. Paul, Minn.'s Merriam Park neighborhood, knocking out power to two polling stations for about 90 minutes.

Voting continued at those sites, said Joe Mansky, Ramsey County's elections manager.

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."

What was uncommon about Tuesday's contest was 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.

Turnout rates as high as 80 percent were expected in Virginia and California, the country's most populous state and the one with the most electoral votes.