Sporadic High-Tech High Jinks Don't Cast Outcome in Doubt

By Mary Pat Flaherty and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

An unprecedented outpouring of voters translated into waits of several hours yesterday at polling sites from Arizona to southeastern Virginia, amid sporadic reports around the country of problematic voting machines, faulty registration lists, and deceptive text messages and other high-tech efforts to deter young people and minorities from casting ballots.

Nationally, the quadrennial ritual of selecting a president produced few problems widespread enough to cast the outcome in doubt, according to election observers, state election officials and the political parties.

In fact, the record-shattering turnouts transformed the protracted waits in some places into de facto street parties, with citizens snapping photos with their cellphones as they waited their turn at democracy's most basic task. In Santa Monica, Calif., crowds in line at 7 a.m. for the polls to open at City Hall broke into cheers and songs as the sun rose.

The day had its share of snags. One Kansas City, Mo., ward received scrambled registration lists, prompting huge backups, for two hours until the rolls were straightened out, as poll workers verified eligibility. A suspicious white powder closed one Rhode Island polling station for four hours until officials determined the substance to be soap. And detectives in Lancaster County, Pa., investigated reports of calls to voters steering them to the wrong voting sites.

Polls in at least a few places remained open later than scheduled to accommodate the throngs or for other reasons. They included Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., and a few precincts close to universities in Florida and Virginia. Chesapeake, Va., in the Tidewater region had some of the longest lines in the country, as voting-machine problems produced seven-hour waits early in the day.

Last-minute lawsuits challenging election procedures were lodged yesterday in Philadelphia, Indianapolis, New Hampshire and Ohio. But election law specialists said potential problems at the polls had been averted by nearly a dozen lawsuits nationwide filed in recent weeks, in which federal and state courts upheld the eligibility of hundreds of thousands of voters.

"From the national view, we just haven't had the kind of breakdowns people feared," said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan project that monitors election administration.

The logistics of voting have emerged as a large-scale partisan and legal issue since the disputed 2000 election, in which George W. Bush's victory hinged on court rulings about the handling of ballots in Florida. The pattern across the country, which continued yesterday, is that Republicans tend to allege instances of voter fraud, while Democrats often contend that eligible voters are being denied the right to cast ballots.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act to try to smooth out election procedures, getting rid of outdated voting machines, ensuring that all voters are legitimate and tallying votes more accurately. But parts of the law are controversial and still being implemented. In the half-dozen years since the law passed, $3 billion in federal funds have been spent to overhaul voting operations, much of it for new equipment.

With touch-screen machines falling out of favor, an increasing number of the nation's voters -- slightly more than half -- used paper ballots read by optical scanners that produce a paper trail. And for 31 states, this was the first presidential election using new statewide electronic voter registries required under the law.

"What we don't know is how reliable and accurate the voter databases are," said Dan Tokaji, an Ohio State University professor who specializes in election law. He said the answer would not be evident for at least a few days, until it becomes clear how many people were forced to cast provisional ballots because their eligibility was in doubt and how many of those ballots ultimately were ruled valid.

In Gwinnett County, Ga., northeast of Atlanta, where a printing error on absentee ballots had made them unreadable by high-speed tabulators, election officials last night still had not finished hand-copying the 19,000 votes onto new ballots so they could be tallied.

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