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Despite new ID laws, election system performed well, experts say

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Long waits and other polling problems on Tuesday were not significantly worse than in previous presidential election years but still signaled potential challenges for the future, experts said Wednesday.

Heading into Election Day, Democrats and civil rights groups had worried that several new state laws with tighter voting rules would reduce minority turnout. But the figure was largely comparable to President Obama’s historic election in 2008, exit polls showed. The laws, some of which were blocked by courts, may have mobilized advocates to focus new effort on turning out voters, according to experts and interest groups.

Tuesday’s issues included unusually long waits in the key battlegrounds of Florida and Virginia; disputes over Pennsylvania’s new photo identification law; effects of lingering damage from Hurricane Sandy; and a large number of provisional ballots waiting to be counted in Ohio.

Even so, voting experts said the system performed reasonably well despite the new laws and intense partisanship. “I think it was certainly better than the 2000 election, better than 2004 and no worse than 2008,” said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who researches voting and elections reform.

“It could be that we are getting better at running elections in most of this country,” Stewart said.

Doug Chapin, an elections expert at the University of Minnesota, said Tuesday’s experience was far better than the disastrous 2000 battle between George W. Bush and Al Gore, in which a recount in Florida delayed the results for weeks. “Ever since then, people have been looking for the next big problem, the next big meltdown. And in many ways, we’re still looking,” he said.

But Chapin and other elections experts emphasized that Tuesday’s problems would have been magnified had the vote count for Obama and Mitt Romney been closer. They pointed to hours-long lines in Florida, where the results remained unclear Wednesday afternoon, and the more than 205,000 provisional ballots pending in the crucial state of Ohio. And they suggested that if some of the challenges are not addressed, they could cause another Florida scenario.

“We dodged a bullet,” said Richard Hasen, a law professor at University of California at Irvine and author of a new book, “The Voting Wars.’’ “Just think if it all came down to Florida’s votes. A couple of points difference in a couple of states, and we’d all be focused on Florida now.”

Hasen added that the provisional ballots in Ohio — which the state won’t begin counting until Nov. 17 — was a “ridiculous number.” About 207,000 such ballots were cast in Ohio in 2008. Ohio’s rules, including one requiring a provisional ballot for voters who did not report address changes, create large numbers of the ballots, experts said.

Matt McClellan, a spokesman for the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office, defended the state’s election laws and said that even if the election had come down to Ohio’s provisional ballots, it would “not have been a nightmare scenario.”

“We have a process in place for provisional ballots, and we will follow that,” he said. “At the end of the day, you’ve got resolution.”

Much of the focus on Tuesday centered on Pennsylvania and its tough new voter ID law. In Philadelphia and outlying counties, voters reported that some election workers required photo identification, despite a judge’s ruling last month that put the new measure on hold for 2012. Officials were permitted to ask for photo identification but not as a condition for voting.

Civil rights groups said the confusion in Pennsylvania was one effect of the new laws, which include photo ID laws passed in seven additional states.

Republicans pushed the measures, saying that they were needed to deter voter fraud; opponents say that there is little evidence of fraud and that the laws are designed to reduce turnout among minority voters, who tend to back Democrats.

Election observers also attributed the lines in Florida in part to a law that reduced early voting. “There were some residual effects from these laws, and they were negative for voters,” said Wendy R. Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice.

The center concluded in a study last year that more than five million voters could be affected by the changes, but Weiser acknowledged that, with many of the laws blocked or weakened by courts, “they did not have as large of a negative effect as they would have before.”

And Stewart, the elections expert, said the state laws, with all of the attention they attracted from advocacy groups and the media, had the perhaps unintended effort of mobilizing Democratic supporters. Exit polls showed, for example, that turnout among black voters increased in Ohio, while the number of Hispanic voters in Florida ticked up.

“It is certainly the case that so-called voter suppression efforts were rallying points for the base of the Democratic Party,” Stewart said. “That’s undeniable.”

Peyton Craighill and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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