November 2, 2004

With election too close to call, long lines are story of Election Day

By URIEL HEILMAN
COLUMBUS, Ohio


For all the concerns before Election Day about the possibility of voter fraud, voter intimidation and malfunctioning ballot machines, the main problem for poll workers in the United States on Tuesday was voter turnout.

As Americans headed to the polls in what appeared to be record numbers on Election Day, polling places were overwhelmed. In Ohio, where a steady rain fell throughout the day, polling locations equipped with three or four voting machines per precinct saw lines that stretched through gymnasiums, down several flights of stairs and out of buildings. In some places, voters waited more than four hours before casting their ballots.

"I don't think voter challenging is our problem today," said Ben Bodamer, 24, co-president of a student-run voter protection group in Columbus called Just Democracy. "The single-biggest problem is large voter turnout, which is actually a wonderful problem to have."

All day long, residents of swing states were bombarded with phone calls urging them to vote, many of them with recorded messages from popular political personalities like former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

At the 12 polling places in Columbus being monitored by Just Democracy, there were average wait times of two hours, according to Bodamer. Polling places in Ohio closed at 7:30 PM, but the voting went on for several hours afterward as those who arrived just before the deadline and faced long lines got the chance to vote.

The scene was similar across the country, particularly in states where election-eve polls said the race between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry was too close to call.

The chaos of long voter lines led to confusion at some polling places serving multiple precincts, where, in some instances, voters standing in the wrong precinct line were given provisional ballots for a precinct in which their votes would not qualify.

After all the hoopla about challenges to voter eligibility, Ryan Herron, 20, came to the polls prepared for his first ever vote for president. A student at Ohio State University, Herron brought with him copies of his lease agreement and phone bills to prove his residency.

"I didn't want anyone to tell me I can't vote here," Herron said after waiting two and a half hours to cast his vote. He said he was eager not only to vote for Kerry, but to cast his vote on two key ballot initiatives in the state: one to ban indoor smoking in bars and another to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Herron did not say which way he voted on the initiatives.

In a sign of just how important Ohio's 20 electoral votes are in this close presidential contest, President Bush broke with the tradition of not campaigning on Election Day and flew to Columbus on Tuesday to get in some last-minute campaigning after casting his vote in Crawford, Texas early in the morning. The night before, Sen. John Kerry was in Cleveland, Ohio for a rally with the rock star Bruce Springsteen.

In 2000, Bush carried Ohio by a margin of about 3.6%.

In downtown Columbus on Tuesday, volunteers for each campaign stood on opposite street corners in the driving rain outside the state capitol holding Kerry/Edwards and Bush/Cheney banners.

Michael Losinske, 60, said he had spent most of the last 10 days standing on downtown sidewalks waving Bush/Cheney signs. He also held aloft a blow-up dolphin with which he yelled, "No flipper in the White House!" a reference to Republicans' characterization of Kerry as a flip-flopper on the issues.

"As a Catholic, it bothers me how many Catholics are voting for Kerry," Losinske said. "He's a divorced Catholic, he's pro-abortion."

Losinske said he also did not understand why most Jews did not support the president. "Why are Jewish people so enthralled with Kerry?" he asked. "They should be 98% for Bush. He took out the Taliban. He took out Saddam, one of Israel's worst enemies. He's trying to put the kibosh on Iran."

Stan Sinberg, who came to Ohio from California to help rally Democrats on Election Day, called Bush a "right-wing religious zealot."

Exhausted by the seemingly endless campaign-with nonstop campaign TV commercials, one campaign rally after the other, and pitched battles between neighbors over lawn signs for the candidates-many Ohioans said they'd be glad when the race was over and they could resume normal life. But even as voters emerged from their touch-screen voter booths on Tuesday sporting stickers reading "I voted today," Democratic and Republican officials alike worried that legal battles over a close vote could stretch out the race in Ohio far beyond Election Day.

Lawyers for both parties stood by at many polling places as both Republicans and Democrats blamed each other for turning the election into a legal battle.

Early Tuesday morning, a federal appeals court in Ohio ruled that election observers could monitor the vote at polling places, overturning a pair of lower-court decisions on the matter and prompting concerns about voter intimidation and chaos at the polls. The decision brought particular concern to Democrats, who were expected to be the primary beneficiaries of the surge of new voter registrants this year, and they appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice John Paul Stevens refused the Democrats' request for an appeal.

Standing on an hour-and-a-half-long line to vote at a Columbus-area high school, Gary Gillett, 44, an attorney, said he was worried that election observers might slow things down so much that would-be voters would lose patience and go home.

"It isn't so much that they're intimidating people; the lines are intimidating people," Gillett said. "But I'd wait in line no matter what because I want to run Bush out of office."

Elsewhere in the state, tens of thousands of volunteers fanned out across Ohio's 88 counties to knock on doors and make sure people knew how to vote and could get to the polls on what turned out to be a rain-soaked election day in Ohio.

In Bexley, a heavily Jewish suburb of Columbus, voters waited patiently on a line that snaked its way through a school gymnasium and out the door.

Sally Skuller, an octogenarian who claimed her grandfather had been good friends with President Warren Harding, who served from 1921 to 1923, emerged from the voting booth with a smile. She said she voted straight Republican.

Skuller said she remembered her grandfather going into the voting booth to help her mother, aunt and grandmother vote. "He went in there three or four times every election," she said. "They weren't so strict back then, and the ladies weren't used to voting."