Brad Heath, USA TODAY
Millions of Americans showed up to vote Tuesday, confronting long lines and a slew of new voting laws.
Millions of Americans turned out to vote in Tuesday's razor-thin presidential election, facing long lines, strict new identification requirements and in some areas, polling stations without power.
Election observers said that by mid-afternoon, they had fielded 69,000 reports of voting problems across the country, many of them tied to new state voting restrictions and fallout from the storm that devastated parts of the Northeast last week.
Voters reported hours-long lines in South Florida and parts of Virginia, voting machine malfunctions in key Ohio precincts, and Pennsylvania poll workers who improperly turned people away if they couldn't produce a photo ID. In one Pennsylvania precinct, a voter posted a YouTube video of a malfunctioning voting machine that put a check next to Mitt Romney's name when he tried to cast a ballot for President Obama.
"It's already started, and it is busy," said Barbara Arnwine, the executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which monitors voting problems. "Voters are doing their part by being persistent and voting."
In Pennsylvania, civil rights groups complained that workers at some polling sites were requiring voters to show identification, even though a federal judge decided last month that the state's new voter-ID law could not be enforced this year. That led to some voters being turned away, Arnwine said.
"It is absolutely unconscionable, and people ought to be ashamed," she said.
Matthew Keeler, a spokesman for Pennsylvania's election office, said officials had heard of only a "few scattered reports" of people being asked for identification when they should not have been, and that state officials had contacted election workers in counties where that happened. He said that even when the voter ID law takes effect, people without identification will be able to cast provisional ballots, and should not be told they cannot vote.
Other disputes were already headed to court by midday.
In Pennsylvania, Republican officials said that Democratic poll watchers in Philadelphia had improperly prevented the party's poll watchers from entering voting sites. A court quickly ruled that Democrats could not shut them out. "This was a shameless attempt from the Obama campaign to suppress our legally appointed Republican poll watchers in Philadelphia, and they got caught," state Republican Chairman Rob Gleason said in a statement.
In Ohio, where officials reported scattered problems with electronic voting machines, a federal judge on Tuesday rejected a challenge to the use of those machines. U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost said in a written order that the Green Party candidate who brought the challenge "has demonstrated zero likelihood of success based on the evidence presented." Another federal judge scheduled a hearing for Wednesday morning in a lawsuit challenging the way Ohio counts provisional ballots.
"Long lines, machine breakdowns, fights at the polls. Unfortunately, this is the new normal for Election Day," Rick Hasen, a University of California, Irvine election-law expert, wrote in a post on Twitter.
Elsewhere, the biggest issues were long lines, new equipment, and the kinds of routine mix-ups that surface in almost every election.
In suburban Alexandria, Va., a line of shivering, chattering voters snaked halfway down the block as people waited to cast paper ballots in a city recreation center at 7:30 a.m.. It was the first time Virginians were required to show identification before voting, but election officials said no one had been turned away, and the line was not unusual for a presidential election.
Mary Berry and her husband, John, waited about 45 minutes to vote. "It was good to see this many people voting," she said.
In Newtown, Conn. - parts of which are still without electricity after being struck last week by Superstorm Sandy - voters walked past knocked-over trees to cast their ballots at an elementary school. In Byers, Colo., a small town of about 1,160 where many people make their living farming, the wait to vote at the American Legion Post 160 was 45 minutes to an hour as officials struggled with new electronic ballots.
"This morning, it was chaos," said Diana Taylor, an election judge working the polling station. "We had trouble with the new electronic system - just trying to find people. If we can't find people in the electronic system, we look them up in another electronic system and then a paper system."
In Florida's Pinellas County, around St. Petersburg, election officials mistakenly told voters that they would have until 7 p.m. tomorrow to cast their ballots. The polls actually close this evening. The county's election office told the Tampa Bay Times it stopped the calls as soon as it discovered the problem.
Voting - and voting problems - started well before Election Day, as states offered more opportunities for people to vote early. In Ohio, nearly 1.8 million people had already voted, either in person or using an absentee ballot. In Florida, more than 4.4 million people voted early. Election observers expect that early votes could account for more than a third of all votes cast this year, the most ever.
Among the issues:
Storm fallout: Superstorm Sandy created election chaos in parts of New York and New Jersey. Officials struggled to reopen or relocate polling stations damaged by the storm, but some still lacked power Tuesday, and others were too damaged to use at all. Both states said they would let people displaced by last week's storm cast their ballots at any polling station. New Jersey said people could vote by e-mail, though technical problems surfaced Monday in some counties. But confusion reigned in some damaged areas on Tuesday. In Hoboken, N.J., Matthew Ohlsen said officials still hadn't processed his application for an electronic ballot, but a voter information hotline warned that if he tried to vote in person, he might get in trouble for trying to vote twice. "I have no idea what to do or how to vote," he said. New Jersey officials said they would extend online voting through Friday evening.
Early voting delays: Voters overwhelmed polling locations in South Florida over the weekend. Some voters complained they waited in line for hours before finally being able to cast a ballot. The Florida Democratic Party went to federal court Sunday to try to force officials to extend early voting hours to cope with the problems. Voters also confronted long early-voting lines in Washington, D.C.
Voter ID laws: For the first time, voters in Virginia, Wisconsin and several other states will be required to show identification at the polls. Those identification laws, which supporters said were aimed at preventing fraud, drew widespread criticism from voting rights advocates, who said they could prevent tens of thousands of eligible voters from casting ballots. Courts blocked or delayed some of the toughest ID laws, but critics said they still feared people might not vote if they thought they still had to show identification.
Provisional ballot uncertainty: Ohio's Republican secretary of State has instructed election officials not to count provisional ballots if voters don't completely fill in their identification information. Those ballots could prove crucial in determining who wins Ohio's 18 electoral votes. A federal judge has said he will decide on a challenge to those restrictions before provisional ballots must be counted Nov. 17. There is "potentially a huge number of votes" that could be affected, said Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Voting machine errors: The Republican National Committee asked election officials in six states to recalibrate electronic voting machines after reports that voters who tried to cast ballots for Romney found that their votes instead went to Obama. State officials generally said they did not see problems with the machines.
Both parties have assembled small armies of volunteer lawyers ready to rush to court to challenge Election Day problems. A USA TODAY analysis last month found that the Republican National Committee had stashed away $5.2 million in a special recount fund; Democrats had $807,400 in a bank account for post-election legal challenges.
Contributing: Yamiche Alcindor, Gary Stoller and Donna Leinwand Leger