As President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney spent election eve rushing from one swing state to another, their campaigns were already preparing for a complicated — and possibly long — battle over Tuesday’s vote.
On Monday, Obama scheduled visits to three states, and Romney four. But the Republican also planned to continue campaigning into Election Day, visiting the key states of Pennsylvania and Ohio one last time.
Even before Tuesday’s voting began, the two sides were already skirmishing over how the balloting was being administered.
In Ohio, a new dispute has broken out over the validity of provisional ballots. Usually, such special ballots — cast by voters but set aside for examination later — are required when something about the voter’s eligibility is in doubt. For example, the voter might lack proper identification or be in the wrong precinct, or the person might have requested an absentee ballot but then showed up to vote in person at a polling place.
When examined in more detail later, provisional ballots are either discarded or, if the voter’s eligibility is established, counted.
The fight over those ballots has now increased the possibility that — if Tuesday’s election comes down to the Buckeye State, it won’t end on Tuesday night at all.
Instead, it might be weeks before Ohio has a final result. Voting rights advocates contend that a new directive issued Friday evening by Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted improperly places the burden on voters — rather than poll workers — for accurately recording the form of identification on provisional ballots.
Husted ordered the state’s 88 county elections boards to reject provisional ballots when the identification portion is incomplete. This appears to be in conflict with a consent decree reached last month between the state and voting rights groups that said provisional ballots with incomplete identification information should be counted.
A group of unions and voting rights groups went to federal court Thursday asking that the state be made to reaffirm that commitment. A day later, Husted released his directive. The state is expected to respond before the end of Monday, but a decision may not come until after the election. Election boards have 10 days after the election to evaluate the eligibility of provisional ballots and decide whether to count them.
In its final projection before Tuesday’s vote, the Ohio Poll sponsored by the University of Cincinnati found the presidential race in Ohio too close to call, with Obama receiving support from 50 percent of probable voters and Romney getting 48.5 percent — within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percent.
However, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released Monday gives the president a six-point lead in Ohio, 51 percent to 45 percent.
On Tuesday night, parsing the early returns from Ohio could be confusing. In the first minutes after polls close, the state is likely to tally up the returns from early voting. These are expected to break heavily for Obama. After that, Romney should creep closer, since he is expected to do better among those who vote on Election Day.
By the time all those votes are counted, the winner still may not be clear. If the number of provisional ballots cast is greater than the number of votes that separate the two candidates, then there could be a long and heated battle over which provisional ballots to count.
A new poll from CNN and the Opinion Research Center, their final survey of the campaign, showed the national race as a dead heat Monday, with Obama and Romney tied at 49 percent.
As in Ohio, the latest polling from Virginia reflects the overall closeness of the race nationally. An NBC News/WSJ/Marist poll shows Obama leading Romney by 48 percent to 47 percent in the Old Dominion, where the former Massachusetts governor had seemed to have momentum.
The best news for Romney came from Florida, where polls have shown both candidates in the lead in recent days. A poll from the Times-Union and Insider Advantage shows Romney up by five points in that state, thanks to a strong showing among independents.
Florida is a must-win for Romney: if Obama takes the state, the race is effectively over, analysts said, no matter what happens in other swing states.
The last days of early voting in Florida this past weekend were marked by long lines, a bomb scare, a flurry of lawsuits and general confusion. In Orange County, Fla., a judge extended voting hours on Sunday after a suspicious package — a cooler — shut down an early voting site at the Winter Park Public Library on Saturday.
Democrats filed suit late Saturday to extend the hours. Republicans did not challenge the judge’s decision.
Long lines — created in part by ballots as long as 12 pages (six pages, both sides) — were a big part of the problem elsewhere in the state. The ballot includes 12 candidates for president alone, including comedian Roseanne Barr and her running mate, activist Cindy Sheehan, representing the Peace and Freedom Party.
There are races for school board members and representatives to soil and water conservation districts. There are yes-or-no questions about whether to retain three Florida Supreme Court justices for another six-year term. And there are nearly a dozen proposed amendments — many of them wordy and confusing — to the state’s constitution, covering issues ranging from property taxes to state funding of abortions to whether lawmakers should have the power to spend tax dollars on religious schools.
The lengthy ballots already have exacerbated long early voter lines at some precincts in recent days. And if voters flocking to the polls Tuesday take time to read them thoroughly before making their choices, it could be a long night.
“This is the longest ballot I can remember,” Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark told the Tampa Bay Times. “The voter who sees this ballot the first time may need smelling salts.”
The Florida Democratic Party went to court early Sunday because hundreds of voters in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward counties were left standing in line when the polls closed Saturday evening.
After the suit was filed, elections officials in the three counties opened their offices and allowed voters to vote by absentee ballot.
But confusion reigned in the Miami-Dade town of Doral when the elections office, swamped with voters, shut its doors. Officials blamed technical problems, but the Miami Herald reported that Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican whose seat is officially nonpartisan, was behind the closure.
After an hour, voting resumed.
Early voting has been a focus of bitter partisan contention in Florida. Last year, the GOP-controlled legislature cut the period available for early voting from a maximum of 14 days to eight days. This past week, Republican Gov. Rick Scott rebuffed Democratic requests that he use his emergency authority to extend early balloting.
Overall, 4.4 million Floridians had voted early as of Monday. Registered Democrats comprised 42.6 percent of the vote and Republicans 39.5 percent, giving Obama and apparent edge. His early-vote advantage, however, is considerably behind his 2008 pace.
Romney’s itinerary for Monday included Florida, Virginia and Ohio. His day--but not his campaign, will end with a rally in New Hampshire — the state where Romney’s campaign officially began 17 months ago.
“Tomorrow, we begin a new tomorrow. Tomorrow, we begin a better tomorrow. This nation is going to begin to change for the better tomorrow,” Romney told a crowd of more than 3,000 people in Sanford, Fla., in his first event of the day. “We can begin a better tomorrow tomorrow, and with the help of the people in Florida, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
On Monday, Obama scheduled campaign stops in Wisconsin and Ohio, before finishing his day in Des Moines at a rally with first lady Michelle Obama and rock icon Bruce Springsteen.
Obama’s trip to Iowa is also a political homecoming of sorts: in 2008, his win in the Iowa caucuses helped launch his challenge to favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries.
Vice President Biden said Monday he was optimistic.
“I think we’re going to win,” Biden told reporters traveling with him in Virginia. “I think we’ll win Ohio. I think we’ll win Wisconsin. I think we’ll win Iowa. I think we’ll win Nevada. I think we’ll win New Hampshire. I think Florida will be close, but I think we have a real shot at winning. And this state, we’ve got a clear shot at winning.”
David Plouffe, a senior Obama adviser, and David Axelrod, a top strategist for the campaign, echoed that optimism.
“Our focus is on just the nine battlegrounds, and in those we’ve had a small but consistent lead for a long time,” Plouffe told reporters accompanying Obama.
“We’ve said we see many different paths to 270 [electoral votes], and all those different paths are still there today that we saw a year ago,” Axelrod said. “We think there are myriad ways to get there. We’re not throwing Hail Marys in states we’re not going to win to try to get to 270. That’s the difference between the campaigns.”
Axelrod added: “It will not be tied tomorrow. We’re going to win.... This was destined to be a very tight race. We knew that. We built an organization for that reason.”
He predicted that Obama would win both the popular vote and the electoral vote. “This is the season for weird theories, but we’re very, very confident of both those things, he said.”
Felicia Sonmez in Florida, David Nakamura in Wisconsin, Rosalind S. Helderman, Philip Rucker, Krissah Thompson and Brady Dennis contributed to this report.