Machines malfunctioned, tempers flared and edgy voters often waited hours Tuesday to pick a president in a contentious race watched by thousands of monitors who expected the worst.

But by nightfall on the East Coast, scattered local snafus had been reported but no allegations of widespread voting irregularites emerged.

"So far, it's no big, but lots of littles," said Doug Chapin, director of the Election Reform Information Project (search), a nonpartisan research group. "We know of no major meltdowns anywhere along the lines some people were worried about."

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Hyper-vigilance appeared to be the order of the day, which in some states prompted poll closures and unfounded complaints.

In New Jersey, for example, a suspicious substance later determined to be spilled salt prompted the two-hour closure of a Mount Laurel precinct. In Pennsylvania, zealous GOP election monitors complained that some Philadelphia voting machines already had thousands of recorded votes when the polls opened at 7 a.m.

Local election officials quickly explained that voting machines registered every vote ever cast on them — like mileage on a car odometer — and that did not constitute evidence of fraud.

"It's absolutely ridiculous," said Deputy City Commissioner Ed Schulgen.

In Colorado, Republican Party officials said a lawyer for the Democrats showed up at an Eagle County precinct with a list of registered GOP voters, planning to challenge them all. Democrats acknowledged it was true.

In other closely contested states — including Iowa and Michigan — the liberal group MoveOn.org (search) was accused of disrupting local precincts. In Ohio, a woman filed a lawsuit on behalf of voters who didn't receive absentee ballots on time, asking they be allowed to cast provisional ballots. Later, a Toledo federal judge granted her request.

Also in Michigan, the NAACP filed a Justice Department complaint, saying it received 35 complaints that GOP poll watchers were harassing voters in Detroit.

In Wisconsin, Republicans said vandals spray-painted "Illegitimate Democracy" across state party headquarters. In Milwaukee, police said tires were slashed on about 20 get-out-the-vote vehicles leased by the GOP.

New touch-screen voting machines, criticized by computer scientists and several elections officials as susceptible to hacking and malfunction, were used Tuesday in 29 states and the District of Columbia. Only Nevada has mandated the machines produce paper receipts, which could make recounts more reliable.

In Florida, which gave the 2000 election to George W. Bush on the basis of 537 votes, 10 touch-screen voting machines failed at various precincts in Broward County. Nearly half the state's voters were using the ATM-like machines.

Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause (search) and a former international election monitor, said a toll-free voting hot line established by her citizens' lobbying group had logged at least 50,000 calls.

Tuesday's high voter turnout could bring "more confusion to already overburdened, understaffed polling places," Pingree said. And many of those places, she added, "will have as many lawyers and poll challengers as they have people voting."

Tensions flared early at many of those sites. A Democratic official in Cleveland claimed he was thrown out of a church basement by a screaming poll judge. Another judge allowed him to return.

In Florida, two Bush supporters filed a lawsuit seeking at least $15,000 in damages, claiming they were punched, pushed, shoved and spat on when they showed up at a Halloween rally for Democratic candidate John Kerry, dressed as giant flip-flops.

Provisional ballots, new this election, also prompted disaster fears because they could delay any recount efforts. Any voter whose name does not appear on precinct rolls is entitled to cast a provisional — or paper — ballot. But elections officials must individually certify them as being cast by registered voters before they can be counted.

"To a certain extent, provisional ballots are second-class votes," said Spencer Overton, a law professor at George Washington University. "You can cast a provisional ballot but we don't know if officials will count it."

A Kerry campaign lawyer said some Pennsylvania voters were prevented from voting when at least a dozen Allegheny County precincts ran out of provisional ballots. More ballots were on their way, and voters were encouraged to return later in the day.

Despite all the lawyers, election-rights activists and partisan voting monitors who descended on polls across the country intent on uncovering voter fraud, the biggest complaint appeared to be long lines that forced voters to wait hours, in queues that circled buildings and wound down streets.

Extremely high turnout, and massive voter-registration efforts by Democrats and Republicans, were considered the cause.

But in one New Orleans precinct, broken machines forced precinct workers to tell voters they would have to come back later, said an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

The complicated issue of counting absentee ballots also added to the confusing array of new machines and new state voting regulations prompted by the debacle of the last race for the White House.

States have differing and confusing rules about deadlines for such ballots. Some states, for example, allow absentee votes to be counted days after the election, provided they are postmarked by Nov. 2. Others mandate that mailed ballots received after Election Day do not count.

And in more than a dozen states, election officials missed the recommended deadline for mailing absentee ballots overseas, meaning soldiers risking their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan might not get them in time to vote.

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