Before the first vote was even cast on the East Coast on Tuesday (November 7), stories began emerging about irregularities, mechanical malfunctions and what appeared to be dirty tricks in the lead-up to one of the most pivotal midterm elections in more than a decade.
With control of the House and Senate hanging in the balance, a record number of poll watchers (850) were dispatched by the Justice Department to oversee the election, and 10,000 Democratic and Republican lawyers were at the ready to step in should any irregularities pop up. By late Tuesday afternoon, it looked like some of those lawyers would have a busy night, or possibly week.
From Colorado to Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey and Missouri — all hotly contested states — problems with voting machines and polls not opening on time were evident from the early morning hours, though most were minor glitches that were quickly fixed.
At press time, some polling places were turning to paper ballots after concerns arose over the unreliability or security of new electronic voting machines, which are being used in more than one-third of precincts. Software problems with the devices caused Tennessee, Colorado and Indiana to push back the cutoff for voting by several hours in some cases, as polls opened late due to glitches. Poll workers also had trouble starting electronic voting machines in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County, and problems with printers and malfunctioning computers caused hiccups in the surrounding areas.
In Texas, Democrats reported problems with machines at 20 Houston precincts, with one precinct only able to get three out of eight machines working when polls opened, though the problems were quickly resolved. According to The New York Times, the situation was worse in Marion County, Indiana, where half the 914 precincts reported difficulty getting the machines started, much of which was linked to insufficient training for poll workers. One hundred seventy five of those precincts were forced to turn to paper ballots to remedy the situation.
In Delaware County, Indiana, officials asked for extra time to be added to voting hours because voters in 75 precincts were delayed when the cards that activated the voting machines were improperly programmed. A circuit court judge extended voting hours until 8:40 p.m. as a result.
Democratic officials asked for voting hours to be extended by nearly two hours in Colorado after lines grew 300-deep at some precincts around Denver. Some voters waited nearly two hours to cast their ballots, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter, the Times reported. CNN reported that a judge turned down that request for extra time to vote.
In New Jersey, a different problem cropped up when the name of Democratic Senator Robert Menendez was automatically highlighted on some machines. That caused some two dozen voters to complain that the only way to de-select it was to press it again, which Republican Party officials said led to some people inadvertently voting for Menendez. Officials notified state authorities about the issue, suspecting a serious computer malfunction or an attempt to manipulate the vote.
Despite the reports of minor malfunctions across the country, there were no allegations of systemic fraud or major disruptions in voting that some had predicted with the introduction of the electronic machines, according to the Washington Post. It was mostly "fender-benders, but no tie-ups yet," said Doug Chapin, director of ElectionLine.org, a nonpartisan election reform project that was tracking voting nationwide.
The FBI is taking a preliminary look into reports of voter intimidation in Virginia, where some voters reported getting calls in which they were allegedly told false information about where to vote, or that they might get arrested if they did, Reuters reported (voter suppression is a federal offense). Virginia was expecting near-record turnout for a hotly contested race for the Senate most notable for some racially charged comments made by incumbent Republican George Allen.
The reports of intimidation came a day after Illinois Democrats complained about a last-minute push by Republicans in that state using auto-dial "robo-calling" programs containing information meant to confuse voters.
The Post reported that homeless people from Philadelphia were recruited to hand out inaccurate sample ballots describing Republican Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Senate candidate Michael S. Steele as Democrats at four polling sites in Prince George's County, Maryland, Tuesday morning. A spokesperson for Ehrlich said the sample ballot was produced by a local branch of the campaign that targets Prince George's Democrats who support Ehrlich and was not a deceptive effort. "I think it's far too late in the game to mislead voters into thinking that Governor Ehrlich is a Democrat," she said.
And if all those issues didn't stop you from voting or slow you down, there was the raft of new voter-identification rules put in place for the first time this year. In addition to snagging a number of prominent voters — including former first daughter Chelsea Clinton — the rules caused confusion and delays when voters' drivers-license information or Social Security data didn't match the information on voter rolls. In some cases, the difference could have been as slight as the use of a middle initial or a "Jr.," resulting in voters being turned away or being forced to cast provisional ballots that will be counted later.
Ohio Republican House Congresswoman Jean Schmidt, facing the loss of her seat over anger about the Iraq war, lined up to vote at 6:30 a.m. at her precinct, only to have her ballot rejected by the optical scanner machine and set aside for counting later, according to a Reuters report.
The news wasn't any better for another Ohio incumbent, Republican Representative Steve Chabot, who had to go home to get a bank statement to confirm his address — his driver's license listed his business one — due to a new Ohio law requiring voters to show ID before casting a ballot. And South Carolina's Republican Governor Mark Sanford was initially turned away from his polling place because he didn't bring the right ID with him and had to come back later in the morning with his voter registration card.