WASHINGTON – Programming errors and inexperience dealing with electronic voting machines frustrated poll workers in hundreds of precincts Tuesday, delaying voters in several states and leaving some with little choice but to use paper ballots instead.
In Cleveland, voters rolled their eyes as election workers fumbled with new touchscreen machines that they couldn't get to start properly until about 10 minutes after polls opened.
"We got five machines — one of them's got to work," said Willette Scullank, a trouble shooter from the Cuyahoga County, Ohio, elections board.
• Check Your State, Check Your Race by clicking BALANCE OF POWER dropdown menu above.
In Indiana's Marion County, about 175 of 914 precincts turned to paper because poll workers didn't know how to run the machines, said Marion County Clerk Doris Ann Sadler. She said it could take most of the day to fix all of the machine-related issues.
Election officials in Delaware County, Ind., extended voting hours because voters initially couldn't cast ballots in 75 precincts. County Clerk Karen Wenger said the cards that activate the push-button machines were programmed incorrectly but the problems were fixed by late morning.
Pennsylvania's Lebanon County also extended polling hours because a programming error forced some voters to cast paper ballots.
With a third of Americans voting on new equipment and voters navigating new registration databases and changing ID rules, election watchdogs worried about polling problems even before the voting began.
"This is largely what I expected," said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan group that tracks voting changes. "With as much change as we had, expecting things to go absolutely smoothly at the beginning of the day is too optimistic."
At some Broward County, Fla., precincts, electronic ballots were mixed up and, in one case, a poll worker unintentionally wiped the electronic ballot activators.
In Utah County, Utah, workers failed to properly encode some of the cards that voters use to bring up touchscreen ballots.
Rep. Harold Ford, the Democratic Senate candidate in Tennessee, claimed a polling place in Jackson shut down because its machines weren't working, but Tennessee election coordinator Brook Thompson said he knew only of typical election morning problems starting machines.
In Illinois, some voters found the new equipment cumbersome.
"People seem to be very confused about how to use the new system," said Bryan Blank, a 33-year-old librarian from Oak Park, Ill. "There was some early morning disarray."
But voting equipment companies said they hadn't seen anything beyond the norm and blamed the problems largely on human error.
"Any time there's more exposure to equipment, there are questions about setting up the equipment and things like that," said Ken Fields, a spokesman for Election Systems & Software Inc. "Overall, things are going very well."
Some voters even liked the new ballots.
"It was much clearer on what you were voting for and you made sure you absolutely were voting for what you wanted to vote for," said Cathy Schaefer, 59, of Cincinnati.
Other problems had nothing to do with machines.
A location in Columbus, Ohio, opened a few minutes late because of a break-in at the school where the precinct is located.
Power failures in Denver knocked out laptops used to verify voter registration, forcing workers to call the central office for information. In North Carolina, about 100 voters waited nearly an hour at a church because the person with the key didn't show up on time.
In Kentucky's Bourbon County, a school board race had been left off some of the ballots, requiring the county clerk to make up paper ballots on the spot, Secretary of State's spokesman Les Fugate said.
Although turnout generally is lower in midterm elections, this year was the deadline for many of the election changes enacted in the wake of the Florida balloting chaos of 2000. The 2002 Help America Vote Act required or helped states to replace outdated voting equipment, establish voter registration databases, require better voter identification and provide provisional ballots if something goes wrong.
Control of Congress is also at stake this year, and because individual congressional races are generally decided by fewer votes than presidential contests, any problems at the polls are more likely to affect the outcome.
According to Election Data Services, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, 32 percent of registered voters were using equipment added since the 2004 elections.
Nearly half of all voters were using optical-scan systems that ask them to fill in blanks, with ballots then fed into a computer. Thirty-eight percent were casting votes on touchscreen machines that have been criticized as susceptible to hackers.
Just getting to the right polling place with the right identification posed a challenge for some voters.
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford got a quick reminder of the voter rules — he was turned away the first time because he didn't have a voter registration card.
Many states established voter registration databases for the first time and found problems matching drivers' license and Social Security data with voter rolls, sometimes simply because of a middle initial.
Although not required by federal law, some states passed new voter identification requirements. While courts struck down photo ID requirements in several states, Missouri's chief elections official, Robin Carnahan, said she was still asked three times to show a photo ID, despite a court ruling striking the requirement down there.
Some New Mexico voters complained they had received phone calls giving them incorrect information about where to vote. The Athens County, Ohio, prosecutor also warned voters there to be wary of fraudulent calls claiming their precinct had changed.
In one of the worst primary election fiascoes, Maryland election officials forgot to send the cards voters needed to activate electronic machines at their polling places, and some voters had to cast provisional ballots on scraps of paper.
Baltimore County election director Jacqueline McDaniel said poll workers had a few problems on Tuesday, including one who left part of the equipment in his car.
Several Florida counties stocked up ahead of the election with extra voting machines, paper ballots and poll workers on standby. Apart from the state's infamous chads in 2000, Florida voters have struggled with poorly trained poll workers and precincts opening late or closing early.
"As of right now things are rolling smoothly," Florida Secretary of State Sue Cobb said. "We're not real happy with the weather but it's not so bad and we hope that everybody will go out and vote."
And in Kentucky, a poll worker was arrested Tuesday and charged with assault and interfering with an election for allegedly choking a voter and pushing the voter out the door, an official said.
Election officials called police, and the voter wanted to file charges, said Paula McCraney, a spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Clerk.
"That about tops off the day," McCraney said.
It wasn't immediately clear what sparked the altercation. The name of the poll worker was not released and a Louisville police spokesman did not immediately return calls seeking comment.