WASHINGTON — Long lines, voting machine failures and registration glitches hampered balloting Tuesday in precincts in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan, New Jersey and Florida, as Americans flocked to the polls to elect a new president.
Early voting by nearly 31 million people eased congestion in many states, but machine malfunctions forced the temporary closures of some polling stations in Virginia, which is considered a presidential battleground state after decades in which Democratic candidates all but conceded the state.
A civil rights coalition reported that thousands of Virginia voters may have given up in the face of long waits. Leaders of the coalition complained that a polling place that serves nearly 6,000 voters, mostly Virginia Tech students, is at a church six miles away from the university.
Legions of election monitors, dispatched by civil rights groups and Barack Obama's and John McCain's campaigns, bird-dogged the voting nationwide.
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A record 153.1 million Americans registered to vote this year, but dozens of states' expansion of early voting opportunities eased the pressure on elections officials in the first presidential race since states implemented a congressional mandate to upgrade to electronic voting equipment.
While Congress required states to buy the equipment, none of the machines has won federal certification, a process that wasn't in place until recent months. The lack of rigorous government testing has fueled some voters' distrust of the machines and their vulnerability to hacking.
After bitterly fought presidential races that were decided by single states in 2000 and 2004, voters were vigilant as they participated in Tuesday's balloting. The Election Protection coalition, led by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and representing more than 100 civil rights groups, said its hot line had received nearly 44,000 phone calls to report problems or make inquiries by 1:15 p.m. EST.
"We're having statewide problems in Virginia and Pennsylvania, mostly having to do with machine breakdowns that are resulting in people in some cases not getting to vote and people being given the wrong types of ballots," said Jon Greenbaum, the director of the Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers' Committee.
For example, the coalition said that poll workers used machine malfunctions as grounds for issuing provisional ballots to some voters, which can require those citizens to return within a few days with additional documentation to ensure that their ballots count.
"A lot of the communities being affected are predominantly minority," Greenbaum said.
In Pennsylvania, another key state, the coalition reported malfunctions of electronic, touch-screen voting machines in at least a dozen locations, mainly in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas. Paper jams on the optical scanners that record paper ballots also slowed voting.
Adding to the Election Day friction, voters across the state complained that they'd requested absentee ballots but never received them.
In State College, the home of The Pennsylvania State University, more than 1,000 mostly student voters waited in line early after an election judge failed to show up on time, but election officials recovered quickly and reduced the wait to an hour or less.
Long lines formed at polls in several other states, including Michigan, New Jersey and closely contested Florida, Ohio and Colorado, mainly due to machine and registration problems.
In Michigan, where voting machine problems were publicly disclosed Monday, some people were being asked to vote on paper with felt-tip markers, and others grew discouraged and dropped out of long lines, the Election Protection coalition said.
Voting also got off to a bumpy start in Kansas City, Mo., another battleground state, because the wrong poll books wound up at several precincts. Quickly arranged swaps remedied the situation.
McCain-Palin campaign officials alleged that "troubling instances" of voter fraud and intimidation had been directed at Republican voters in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Virginia.
Brian Jones, a senior McCain campaign adviser, said the campaign didn't have evidence that the intimidation was "systemic or organized."
In one incident, Republican election officials accused members of the New Black Panthers of blocking voters from a polling place in Philadelphia.
Tuesday's election disputes immediately became the new ground war for the two major political parties and their allies, supplanting months-long court battles over voters' eligibility in swing states. Armies of lawyers, however, were still active.
On Monday, the McCain-Palin campaign sued Virginia's Board of Elections, demanding that the state give military service members and overseas voters an extra 10 days, until Nov. 14, to submit their ballots. McCain is a former Navy pilot who was shot down during the Vietnam War and held for six years as a prisoner of war.
ON THE WEB:
For other voting reports -
Read about Missouri voting at KansasCity.com
Read about Florida voting at MiamiHerald.com
Read about North Carolina voting at CharlotteObserver.com
Read about Kentucky voting at Kentucky.com
Read about Georgia voting at Macon.com
Read about Kansas voting at Kansas.com
Read about California voting at sacbee.com