By Katherine Shaver and Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 4, 2008 10:17 PM
With thousands of votes from heavily-Democratic Northern Virginia yet to be counted, less than one-half of a percentage point separate the two presidential candidates in a state where the outcome may help decide the presidential election.
Obama was ahead by a fraction of a percentage point statewide, with 80 percent of the vote counted, but in the state's northern counties McCain trailed by 16 percentage points with a third of the votes still to be reported.
Obama had been declared the winner in both Maryland and the District by the Associated Press.
With near record early-morning voter turnout at many polling places in Virginia, Maryland and the District, the historic presidential election came to a close with few reported problems.
The early turnout had been overwhelming -- almost half of all eligible Virginia voters had cast a ballot by 10 a.m. -- the traditional afternoon lull ended earlier than usual and the tempo picked up as darkness fell.
Election officials in northern Virginia said they had encountered a few minor glitches in handling an unprecedented number of voters. Officials in Maryland and the District also said the handful of reported problems were quickly resolved.
While Maryland and the District had been forecast to support Democrat Barack Obama, Virginia had been counted among the critical swing states that would determine the election. And its voters took the importance of their role to heart.
Before 6 p.m., 2,000 of the 2,700 registered voters had voted at Washington-Lee High School, more than half of the 3,979 registered voters had cast ballots at the Centeral Library and 70 percent of those registered have voted at the Arlington Arts Center.
Almost all of the polling stations in eastern Fairfax off of Route 1 reported record-setting turnout numbers by noon.
Saddam Hossain, 18, a first year student at Northern Virginia Community College, born in Bangladesh cast his ballot at Graham Road Elementary in the Falls Church area. He said he thinks Obama "will help Iraqis take more control of their own country."
Also at Graham Road, Ninh Khuong Nguyen, 51, an ironworker, said he voted for Republican John McCain because "he tried to make freedom for my country and because he is friendly with my country, Vietnam."
At Marshall High School, Lynn Johnson, 58, a strategic systems architect said she cast her ballot for McCain.
"It's an easy choice." she said. "It would have been nice to have an African-American in office," but she believed Obama's "associations are radical."
Amir Aliabadi, 30, a construction estimator also voted at Marshall. A Republican and native Iranian, Aliabadi voted for Obama because he "wanted to make a statement for the international community. For the past eight years, the U.S. has become the butt of jokes."
At Madison Activity Center in Northern Arlington county, the morning lines greatly subsided by noon. By late afternoon more than 1,500 of the precinct's 3,200 had voted. Pam Gibert, the precinct chief, said the turnout appeared to be more sparse in the afternoon than in 2004 when lines were out the door all day. She attributed this to absentee ballots.
Stephanie Kingree, 36, an events specialist who voted at the Madison Center said he choose Obama because of his selection of Joe Biden as his running mate.
"I think you could judge the candidates based on who they picked as their vice president," she said.
Obama picked a foreign policy expert to help his weakness there whereas she said McCain picked somebody "who could be controlled easily."
In Alexandria, Lisa Schumaier was one of the first to vote at the Cora Kelly Recreation Center and she brought company. Her parents, Peter and Dee, had been Democratic Party activists for years. Although both died and were cremated in 2006, she knew they would want to be part of what she called "this historic election." So she brought a piece of each -- Dad's ashes in her right pocket, Mom's in her left.
"This is the last thing I did before I left the house this morning," she said, pulling tiny bits of hardened white ash from each of her baggy brown shorts pockets. "It's totally weird. But my Dad would be so happy to be here."
The question of whether enthusiasm shown by young people this year would translate into votes on election day received something of an answer at the University of Maryland. Four years ago, a total of 744 people voted in the student union, said student volunteer Andy Buder. This year, that number was surpassed before 11 a.m.
Meanwhile, at George Mason University, officials said someone hacked into the school's e-mail system overnight and sent out a hoax message to about 35,000 people that said: "Please note that election day has been moved to November 5th. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you."
The bogus e-mail was tracked to a D.C.-based company that works with political campaigns on the Web. The e-mail was routed through wiredforchange.com, a company that provides e-mail and fund-raising services to Democratic and progressive candidates. The company said a German spammer was likely responsible.
In Montgomery, Board of Elections spokeswoman Marjorie Roher reported "a few very tiny machine glitches," almost all of which were fixed over the phone with the help of information technology experts.
As the polling place at Rocky Hill Middle School in Clarksburg opened this morning, a line of voters stretched out of the school, through the parking lot and all the way to a stop sign on the nearby street. But by early afternoon, voters were able to cast their ballots in mere minutes.
It took Peter Samuel 45 minutes to drive to the polling place from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he is studying financial economics. The 20-year-old missed the deadline to file for an absentee ballot and didn't want to miss his first opportunity to vote in a presidential race.
Although both of his parents are life-long Democrats, Samuel thinks the country needs a more centralized government and voted for McCain. Luckily, his political science professor canceled class today, so Samuel had time to make the trek home to vote.
"Even knowing that Maryland is very Democratic and my vote probably won't change things, I still felt like I had to go out there and vote," he said. "You can't complain when everything's done if you didn't vote."
Michael Castro, 19, make a similar journey from the University of Maryland in College Park to vote for McCain, whom he thinks will help balance out the Democratic Congress. This is Castro's first time voting in a presidential election.
"I've seen the voting places all my life. I wanted to be part of that line," he said. "I'm not sure how much my vote is going to count but at least I put it in."
Lines were also short this afternoon at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown.
The only race on that ballot that Anas Paiz, 47, cared about was the presidential race and she voted for Obama. Her 20-year-old daughter, Evelin Serpas, went to the polls with her mother and voted for the first time. The two women said it took just minutes for them to cast their ballots and didn't have to wait in line at all.
"It's a big election and we wanted to make sure we voted," said Serpas. "We've had Obama in mind for quite some time."
Longtime Democrat Pat Ryan, 53, has known for months which candidates she would vote for, but she had a hard time deciding how to vote on the slots referendum. Even as she stepped into the booth she was weighing the pros and cons of adding slot machines to state race tracks and other venues.
"I have really mixed feelings about that," she said. "On one hand, the people who gamble can't afford to do so. But some people say, they are going to spend that money anyway, it might as well stay in the state.
I went back and forth, and I finally just voted for it. Now I just want to make sure the money from does get to the schools."
At Kettering Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro, Mildred Benning, 79, wiped away a few tears after voting for Democratic candidate Barack Obama, who is vying to become the first African American elected president. Benning, who is black, lived through the civil rights struggle in North Carolina, an experience that shattered her faith in the goodness of American people -- for a while.
"Who among us ever thought we would live to see this day?" Hoover asked. "I've never been so proud of my country."
In the District, Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) said she felt voting was going smoothly in the District, especially given some precincts had more than 50 percent turnout by midday.
"It's phenomenal," she said.
Cheh, a constitutional law professor who chairs a special committee investigating what caused the initial release of erroneous results in September's primary, said a few paper ballot scanners, known as optical scan machines, broke down at several precincts but ballots were recorded on other machines working properly and voting was not interrupted.
She said the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics has put in place several new procedures to prevent the release of incorrect results, which occurred several hours after polls closed in September. The tally sheets included thousands of phantom write-in votes that inflated vote totals in many contests and cast doubt on the results.
Cheh said that the elections board has decided to release results in smaller increments throughout the night. Elections officials indicated that the move would help them catch any type of glitch as they double-checked results.
"I think that makes sense," Cheh said.
As well, the cartridges from the optical scan and touch screen machines will be fed into two different servers, so the results can be compared and matched. And precinct captains at every polling place will be asked to do a written tally of ballots cast. That number will be compared to the electronic data on the cartridges.
Cheh said she will be at the board tonight to monitor the vote counting process.
Staff writers Jeff Baron, Jennifer Buske, Sarah Cohen, Petula Dvorak, Megan Greenwell, Steve Hendrix, Chris Jenkins, Susan Kinzie, Theola Labbé-DeBose, Jonathan Mummolo, Howard Schneider, Brigid Schulte, Avis Thomas-Lester, Josh White and Ovetta Wiggins and Brian Krebs of washingtonpost.com contributed to this report.