COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A massive turnout, voting machine breakdowns and misinformation about voter eligibility requirements snarled balloting at many of the nation’s polling places Tuesday, forcing Americans determined to help decide the fiercely fought presidential race to wait as long as five hours to vote.
While it was too early to gauge the precise national turnout, the crush of voters apparently took many county election officials by surprise, despite heavy early voting in key states such as Ohio that might have been a tipoff.
Virginia and Florida held polls open until midnight for voters in line by the original scheduled closing times, but by then President Barack Obama had been declared the winner of another term.
Allegations of voting rights, other irregularities and “inexcusable” election planning flew in several swing states.
In Pennsylvania, a state that Republicans hoped would deliver Mitt Romney a surprise upset, complaints poured in of voters being falsely informed of photo ID requirements that had been set aside by the courts. In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, dozens and perhaps many more voters’ names were wrongfully missing from the rolls, creating suspicions of an improper purge of eligible voters’ names.
While results from storm-devastated New Jersey won’t affect the final outcome, election watchdogs labeled its voting process “a catastrophe” after a late move to allow email voting crashed computer servers and jammed fax lines in large counties. Facing a potentially huge disenfranchisement of voters, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno extended balloting until 8 p.m. Friday.
Despite the lessons of recent presidential elections in which voters waited long hours at inner-city polls, in cities big and small it was déjà vu on Tuesday. But perhaps with memories of the razor-thin 2000 presidential election, voters seemed especially resolved to stay with the process.
In Richland County, S.C., voter Sharon Bruce waited for nearly five hours to vote.
In Missouri, the secretary of state’s office predicted turnout would be 72 percent, up from 69 percent four years ago.
"We were just hammered," was how Johnson County, Mo., election commissioner Brian Newby described the throngs of voters massing to the polls.
Voters across Virginia endured long waits – up to five hours in Chesapeake, said Barbara Arnwine, president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and leader of a huge Election Protection coalition, which dispatched 7,000 volunteers, including 5,000 lawyers, to bird-dog the balloting nationwide.
“Everybody has known for at least the last two weeks how strong the early voting has been in the states that allowed it,” Arnwine said. “These other states have seen that and should have been prepared for a massive voter turnout. Instead, they have insufficiently staffed … insufficient machines, insufficient polling sites. Inexcusable. It really requires that our nation look at and examine how we are administering our democracy.”
In Ohio, for example, nearly 1.8 million voters filed absentee ballots.
Ohio’s system for verifying registered voters has drawn fire after 33,000 applicants for absentee ballots were wrongfully turned away. They were mistakenly told that they were not registered to vote – an oversight that state officials blamed on a data-sharing problem with the State Department of Motor Vehicles.
On the east side of Columbus, Ohio, many first-time voters flocked to the Blackburn Recreation Center, including 21-year-old Tyreshia Cody, a restaurant worker and part-time college student. Cody said poll workers helped steer her through the confusion, because “I didn’t have any idea what I was doing.”
But other young voters at Blackburn weren’t as fortunate, said Sarah Biehl, the voting location manager.
"There have been a lot of young first-time voters coming in who are very excited to vote and they’re not on our poll books," Biehl said. "They’re not in the rolls. Or they’re in the wrong place. For some of them, the address is incorrect. We’ve had a lot of issues and it’s not just young people. We had other people who had been voting here for years, and now they’re not in the poll books. And it’s not clear to me why.”
Biehl gestured toward a cardboard box stuffed with many of those voters’ provisional ballots, which must pass tougher thresholds to be counted.
Dozens of voters in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh also reported that they had registered and voted at their polling places in the past, but were informed when they arrived Tuesday that their names weren’t on the rolls.
“It’s too much of a trend line … We suspect that there’s been purging of voters that has been unreported and not conducted properly under the standards required by the National Voter Registration Act,” said Arnwine, speaking for the coalition, which fielded nearly 90,000 complaints by 11 p.m. Under the law, if a registered voter fails to cast a ballot in a presidential election, his name is supposed to remain on the rolls for four more years.
Election Day in the seemingly always-pivotal state of Ohio started with a new controversy. Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted was drawn into court by an 11th-hour lawsuit. Green Party congressional candidate Bob Fitrakis accused Husted of skirting state law and contracting for voting tabulation software that wasn’t properly certified and that contained a “back door” to rig the votes.
At a hearing, lawyers for Husted presented testimony that the state’s electronic votes – backed up by paper ballots – are totaled at the county level. Hours later, U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost denied a request for a temporary restraining order barring use of the software, ruling that the allegations were “speculative” and failed to show a “realistic possibility” of harm.
“This suit was completely baseless and caused unnecessary concern and confusion,” Husted said in a statement.
A court ruling delaying the effect of Pennsylvania’s new photo identification requirement for voters wasn’t enough to snuff out its impact. The Advancement Project, a non-partisan voting rights group, partly blamed the state for running advertisements that left voters confused about what forms of identification were needed.
Also on Tuesday, the group reported that signs and leaflets falsely stating that photo ID is required to vote were posted and distributed at polling places throughout Pennsylvania, including in Philadelphia, Delaware County, York County and Lehigh County.
“New state laws require all voters who appear to vote in a precinct to provide election officials with proof of identification,” the leaflets said, according to the project. “ALL VOTERS must show one of the following approved forms of Photo Identification to vote… If a voter does not have an approved form of photo identification, the voter must be offered a provisional ballot,”
Scattered complaints came in from across the state of voters being required to produce photo IDs.
In Pinellas County, Fla., Arnwine said that automated phone calls from the supervisor of elections advised over 12,000 voters that election day is Wednesday before the glitch was corrected, Arnwine said.
She lamented that two Ft. Lauderdale precincts created an appearance of disparate treatment based on race. One precinct had 24,000 registered voters, 72 percent of whom were black, who waited in a long line for one voting machine.
At the other, with a far smaller voting roll, of whom 27 percent are African-American, 10 people waited for two machines, she said.
Mike Hendricks of The Kansas City Star and Joey Holleman of The State in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this article.