The lines of voters at a polling station in Prince William County were so long Tuesday afternoon that Democratic operatives rushed to urge people waiting, some up to four hours, to hold on a little longer to cast their ballot.
The excruciatingly slow-moving lines at the River Oaks precinct in Potomac Middle School was one of the worst in the region on an Election Day that has seen many Washington area polling places so inundated with voters that people spent hours inching forward.
In battleground Virginia, the race for president and the highly watched U.S. Senate contest drew scores eager to make their voice heard.
As in many swing states, the most recent polls had President Barack Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney running neck-and-neck in Virginia, where the polls are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Also too close to call: the Senate race between Democrat Timothy M. Kaine and Republican George Allen to succeed retiring Sen. Jim Webb (D).
The contest between the two former governors has been hard-driven across the state, and polls predict a tight race. Polls have shown the race tied but breaking for Kaine in recent weeks. About $30 million from GOP groups helped Allen’s campaign, making the race one of the nation’s most expensive this year. The contest has garnered national attention because of its potential to help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.
Although voters waited patiently in most polling locations, some voters in Fairfax County, for example, were observed doing a U-turn rather than brave hours standing outside in the November chill.
The River Oaks precinct is in the town of Dumfries on the eastern edge of Prince William County. It had six voting machines for the 5,100 voters registered in an area that is heavily minority and Democratic-leaning.
Democratic party officials on the scene accused the Republican-led elections board, which is appointed by the Prince William Circuit Court, of failing to assign enough workers and voting machines.
Richard Hendrix, one of the Republican appointees on the three-member board, said it was a matter of limited resources.
“We distribute them evenly and based on the size of the precinct and expected turnout,” he said. “We’re doing our best to make sure the elections are run as smoothly as possible in every precinct in the county.”
Rosa Gutierrez,33, stepped out before voting — she said her 18-year-old son was holding her spot in line as she ran out to a nearby McDonald’s restaurant after waiting for three hours. Gutierrez said she had been awake since 2:30 a.m., when she arose to go to her job as a manager at a Starbucks. “He’s voting for the first time, so I have to be an example,” she said of her son.
Gaston Gianni, the precinct chief, said that poll workers had requested more voting machines, but none was available.
Harry W. Wiggins, the chairman of the local Democratic Committee, said that while Obama campaign lawyers had been notified, there was little they could do as the end of Election Day drew near.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), whose district includes the middle school, was at the school, joined other party officials encouraging people to stay.
But several voters said they had seen few people give up their place in line and depart.
Imran Saeed, 41, plopped his 4-year-old daughter onto a metal folding chair. She was too fatigued to stand, he said, and Saeed had about 15 minutes left to wait before he could vote.
“She wants to go home,” he said of his daughter, Duria. Saeed, who owns a handyman repair business, said he would cancel his night appointments if he had to.
“My goal is to vote,” he said.
Around the state, there also were some isolated reports of confusion about the new voter identification requirements in Virginia.
Some poll workers in Northern Virginia apparently did not realize that the new law that does not require photo identification, making it more flexible than voter-ID laws passed in many other Republican-controlled states. The new law greatly expanded the types of identification accepted at the polls, including utility bills, paychecks or bank statements.
Nevertheless, Melinda Schweihs, an Alexandria voter, said a poll worker turned down her government-issued voter card and incorrectly asked her to provide photo identification. Schweihs happened to have a photo ID with her and was able to vote. But she said in an e-mail that she was distressed for other voters.
“How many people are they demanding this of, and turning away?” she wrote.
Alexandria’s elections chief Tom Parkins said that such complaints were rare early Tuesday and that Schweihs’ voter card should have been “gold.” Poll workers should know from training that photo identification is not required, but he said, “I can’t say that out of several hundred people trained that somebody might not have gotten the message.”
In at least two precincts in Prince William County, breakdowns in voting equipment led to long lines during the busy morning hours. The county’s elections chief Betty Weimer said that voting machines had to be operated manually by poll workers because of malfunctioning equipment.
“We’re still in business,” Weimer said. “But it’s just slowing it down a bit.”
In Woodbridge, a two- to two-and-a-half-hour wait at the Mary Porter School had been the norm since the polling station opened at 7 a.m. until at least mid-day. Waits were averaging two hours at the Potomac Branch Library polling place.
In Pentagon City Tuesday morning, the line of voters stretched from a huge parking lot, where people rubbed their hands and shivered in the cold, down a hill, around a driveway, into an apartment building, past the dry cleaner and gym, around a corner, into a corridor lined on both sides with voters almost touching as they read iPads or listened to headphones, around another corner and down a short flight of stairs to — at last — the polling room.
Almost all the 644 voters were late for work.
“I’m glad to see everyone out, it doesn’t matter who they’re voting for,” said Emma Durazzo, 84, who works at the Pentagon and, in 28 years in the neighborhood, has never seen lines like this to vote. She saw the lights of cars pulling into the parking lot before dawn from her building next door, and hurried over. “The vote is important to me,” said Durazzo, who is African American. “I’ve been through civil rights . . . I remember when we didn’t have this.”
Though some lines thinned out as the day wore on, others stayed persistently lengthy.
In Woodbridge, Jeanette and Michael Root thought they would wait out the early morning crowd to vote for Mitt Romney. “It didn’t work,” laughed Jeanette Root, 64. “We still waited about one hour and a half.”
The retired couple, who have been married for 31 years, said their vote for Romney was to “save the nation.”
“The current administration has no plan and they are ruining our economy and destroying our military,” said 63-year-old Michael Root.
Many voters interviewed early Tuesday at polling sites said they had voted a straight ticket.
Among them was Kashif Javaid, 39, who works for Verizon and was voting at Fairfax Villa Elementary School,
Originally from Pakistan, he moved to the United States in 1989. He said he voted for Democrats down the line — Obama, Kaine for Senate and incumbent Connolly in the 11th Congressional District.
“I just feel like the Republican Party is becoming extremist, and as a minority, I don’t feel welcomed by their party,” Javaid said. “I wanted to do something about that, so I voted for the other side. I think the party that includes everyone should be rewarded.”
Some who cast ballots for Obama four years ago went for Romney this time.
“The economy is just not doing good,” said David Weller, 53, after voting at Albert Hill Middle School in Richmond’s Museum District. A nursing assistant who was laid off from his job at a nursing home, Weller added, “I think Romney can turn the economy around.”
Weller also voted for Allen in the Senate race. “I just think we need a change and he can bring a change in Washington,” he said.
In Prince William County, Jim Campbell, 34, split his vote. He said he voted for Obama for president and Allen for the Senate. His choice of Obama wasn’t totally heartfelt.
“I don’t think either one is better,” said the Manassas resident.
He said that while he saw voting for Romney as too much of a change, a vote for Allen might shake things up just a bit. “A little bit of change for Virginia would be good,” he said.
There are also several congressional contests in Northern Virginia on Tuesday, where incumbents are expected to prevail.
In the 1st Congressional District, incumbent Rep. Rob Wittman (R) faces Democratic challengers Adam Cook, a lawyer and Air Force veteran, and Independent Greens’s G. Gail Parker. Republicans have held the seat for 35 years.
In the 8th District, longtime congressman Jim Moran (D), seeking a 12th term, is running against three opponents, including second-time challenger Republican Patrick Murray, an Army veteran.
In the 10th District, 30-year congressman Frank Wolf (R) squares off against a former federal prosecutor and Democrat, Kristin Cabral, in a sprawling district that encompasses Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties as well as rural swaths of Clarke and Frederick counties..
In the 11th District, Democratic incumbent Connolly faces five challengers, including retired Army Col. Chris Perkins (R).
Staff writers Caitlin Gibson, Ann Marimow, Corinne Reilly, Susan Svrluga, Laura Vozzella and Candace Wheeler also contributed to this report.