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

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

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

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 in parts of the country transformed the protracted waits 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 glitches. 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 that voters were eligible. 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.

As polls around the country closed, it was not clear exactly how many people were still in line to cast ballots, but at least a few precincts close to universities in Florida and Virginia were forced to remain open late. 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 a series of 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 in the event of disputes. 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.

The most notable quality of the voting was the sheer number of people who took part. Connecticut's secretary of state was predicting 90 percent turnout. In Nevada, an estimated 1.1 million of the state's 1.4 million registered voters took part.

"It was breathtaking," said Mark Ritchie, secretary of state for Minnesota, where 80 percent of registered voters had cast ballots .

Waits at the polls would have been even longer, except for a dramatic surge in early voting, which appears to have accounted for about one-third of the votes cast in the presidential race, compared with 14 percent eight years ago, according to Paul Gronke, a researcher with the Early Voting Information Center in Portland, Ore. In North Carolina, the number of early voters equaled 70 percent of the entire turnout in 2004. In Colorado, more than half the vote came in early.

While most people managed to cast their ballots, representatives of Election Protection, a national consortium of civil rights groups that monitored the voting, said this year's election was marred by the proliferation of a new generation of deceptive practices that first surfaced a few years ago.

Jonah H. Goldman, director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that several college campuses and minority communities were targeted with disinformation via fliers, text messages, automated calls and group postings on the Facebook social networking site. "This is one of the really unfortunate developments of this election cycle," Goldman said.

In Missouri, the local U.S. attorney began an investigation into who sent out a text message that said: "All Obama supporters, due to the long delays, are asked to wait and vote tomorrow."

And at the Cochran, Ga., campus of Middle Georgia College, nearly 400 of its 1,300 students received notices in the past months that their voter registrations were invalid. According to Glennis Douglas, the local country registrar, a woman who said she was from the Obama campaign signed up to be a third-party registrar and spent weeks on the campus. But, Douglas said, most of the registrations she turned in were defective, because they lacked addresses or copies of students' IDs. Most of the affected students did not correct their registration, and ones who came to vote yesterday had to cast provisional ballots.

Although many legal disputes were resolved in advance, attorneys still were skirmishing yesterday in a few places. In Philadelphia, a judge rejected a request by the NAACP to order that emergency paper ballots -- issued when electronic voting machines failed in polling places -- be counted last night instead of today.

The New Hampshire Republican Party won a challenge yesterday that had blocked its poll workers' access to the area where same-day registration was taking place. And in Ohio, Republicans renewed a challenge to have the secretary of state issue orders on how election officials should count provisional ballots, which are cast by voters whose registration cannot be verified at the polls or who are in the wrong precincts. In Indiana, Project Vote, a progressive group, filed a lawsuit yesterday on behalf of a group of Indianapolis residents who registered to vote recently but then received notices that they would be ineligible to cast ballots because they had inadvertently used old registration forms. But for the most part, the mood among voters was determined and celebratory. Ian Comer, a 22-year-old Army private, drove 18 hours from Fort Benning, Ga., to cast his ballot in Princeton, W.Va., then drove straight back. On Hilton Head Island, S.C., a pregnant woman went into labor in a long voting line, her contractions coming three minutes apart as she was escorted to the front of the line to cast her ballot before she was rushed to a hospital emergency room. And in Kansas City, Mo., voters marveled at the turnout as they awaited their chance, the Kansas City Star reported. "Who would have thought that Election Day would be like going to a rock concert," one voter said. "Yeah, we had to stand in line a long time, but it was worth the wait."

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