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.