WASHINGTON – Sporadic problems were reported Tuesday at polling places around the country, including a confrontation in Pennsylvania involving Republican inspectors over access to some polls and a last-minute court fight in Ohio over election software. One Florida elections office mistakenly told voters in robocalls the election was on Wednesday.
Although the majority of complaints were simply long lines, the Election Protection coalition of civil rights and voting access groups said they had gotten some more serious calls among more than 35,000 received on a toll-free voter protection hotline.
"''It's already started and it's busy," said Barbara Arnwine, president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
In Philadelphia, the Republican Party said 75 legally credentialed voting inspectors were removed from polling places in the heavily Democratic city, prompting the GOP to seek a court order providing them access. Local prosecutors were also looking into the reports. Democratic Party officials did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
The battleground state of Ohio was the scene of yet another court battle, this one involving a lawsuit claiming voting software installed by the state could allow manipulation of ballots by non-election board officials. The lawsuit wants a judge to order Ohio not to use the software — something state elections officials said would "unnecessarily thwart the smooth operation of the election."
The Florida robocall glitch occurred in Pinellas County, location of St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay. Officials said the calls intended for Monday were wrongly recycled Tuesday, telling possibly thousands of voters they had until "7 p.m. tomorrow" to vote, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Nancy Whitlock, spokeswoman for the county's supervisor of elections, said officials immediately stopped the calls Tuesday morning when the problem was discovered and a second message went out telling voters to disregard the previous call.
Elsewhere, the Election Protection coalition reported problems with ballot scanners in the Ohio cities of Cleveland, Dayton and Toledo; late-opening polling places in minority neighborhoods in Galveston, Texas; and some precincts in the Tampa, Fla., area where voters are being redirected to another polling place where they must cast a provisional ballot.
Meanwhile, voters in several storm-ravaged areas in New York and New Jersey expressed relief and even elation at being able to vote at all, considering the devastation from Superstorm Sandy. Lines were long in Point Pleasant, N.J., where residents from the Jersey Shore communities of Point Pleasant Beach and Mantoloking had to cast their ballots due to damage in their hometowns. Many people still have no power eight days after Sandy pummeled the shore.
"Nothing is more important than voting. What is the connection between voting and this?" said Alex Shamis, a resident of hard-hit Staten Island, gesturing to his mud-filled home.
Any voting problems are being closely monitored after months of legal and political battles over more voter ID restrictions and other laws, mostly fruitless hunts for supposedly ineligible people on voting rolls in many states and sustained claims that black and Hispanic voters are being targeted for intimidation and suppression.
Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said even in states where the restrictive laws have been blocked or delayed, many people still think they are in effect.
"The laws were struck down but the confusion remains," Waldman said.
Many of these issues could resurface in the courts after Tuesday, particularly if the race between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, is too close to call or heads for a recount in states such as Ohio or Florida.
The Justice Department will have at least 780 observers at key polling places in 23 states to ensure compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and look into any allegations of voter fraud.
Provisional ballots were the latest legal skirmish in the critical battleground state of Ohio, where Secretary of State Jon Husted's decision on how they can be cast was challenged in federal court. Advocates and lawyers for labor unions contend Husted's order would lead to some provisional ballots being rejected improperly because the burden of recording the form of ID used on a provisional ballot is being placed on voters, not poll workers as in the past.
A provisional vote allows a person to have his or her say, but the ballot is subject to review and verification of eligibility.
A decision was not expected before Election Day, but the judge overseeing the case planned a ruling before Nov. 17, when provisional ballots can begin to be counted in Ohio. Provisional ballots are used more often in Ohio than in most states, with experts predicting between 200,000 and 300,000 will be cast there.
"That could be a huge problem after Election Day for counting ballots," said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program. "There's really tens of thousands of voters in Ohio whose votes could be at risk."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers A.J. Connelly in New York, Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, and Patrick Walters in Philadelphia.
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