The big surprise of the 2004 election: For the most part, the voting went smoothly.
By the close of polls across the country, despite heavy turnout and hints of a vote-counting saga dead ahead, there were only scattered reports of equipment trouble and human error at the voting stations. And none were major.
Educated and dedicated voters deserve most of the credit, said Doug Chapin, director of the nonpartisan Election Reform Information Project (search).
"At the end of the day it came down to the voters, and they stood in the rain, they asked questions, they went to court," Chapin said. "And voters came through in a way that even the most optimistic of us hadn't expected."
After the disaster of 2000, when recounting stretched past Thanksgiving and the question of how long it should continue ended up with the U.S. Supreme Court, pessimism has been in large supply.
"We heard stories of isolated incidents, but no major problems," said California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, where all 55 electoral votes — the most of any state — went to Democrat John Kerry. "While long lines may have frustrated voters, it's a wonderful, positive reflection on our democracy," Shelley said late Tuesday.
Where there was discord, much of it surrounded provisional ballots.
In Ohio, after a woman voter filed suit on behalf of voters who didn't receive absentee ballots on time, all were allowed to cast provisional ballots. President Bush led Kerry by more than 135,000 votes in Ohio, but election officials said Wednesday that there were that many provisional ballots in the 78 of Ohio's 88 counties from which totals were available.
The liberal-leaning Election Protection Coalition said its Internet and telephone hot lines logged 126 provisional-ballot complaints in Ohio.
Many involved voters who weren't allowed to cast provisional ballots, said Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, a coalition member.
Whether the provisional ballots still to be counted affect the results matters less than whether the ballots were handled properly to begin with, he said.
"We're thinking of voters being disenfranchised," Greenbaum said. "It's something we're going to look at."
Provisional ballots are new to this election. 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.
About half of all voters said they were very confident their ballots would be accurately counted, according to a national Associated Press exit poll conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.
Extreme vigilance by election officials caused unfounded complaints and poll closures, including a suspicious substance in Mount Laurel, N.J., later determined to be spilled salt.
Long after poll-closing time, voters in some states still waited in long lines. In Ohio, the wait was as long as seven hours. In Connecticut, some got restless.
"They were getting a little rowdy," said Bridgeport Sgt. Nick Meriano. "It's under control now. People were in line a couple hours."
Hundreds complained about touch-screen voting machines, which computer scientists say are prone to malfunction and hacking. They were used in 29 states and the District of Columbia.
E-voting appeared to take its worst hit in New Orleans, where precinct workers were forced to tell voters to come back because of problems including machines that did not boot up properly.
"New Orleans wins the award for the worst voting situation in the country when it comes from electronic voting machines," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Florida had a few problems of its own in that area. In the state that 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.
Common Cause reported more than 175,000 calls to its national voting hot line. The citizens' lobby group said extremely high voter turnout caused complaints of ballot shortages and overwhelmed polling officials.
But such problems appeared to have been quickly solved in some areas. "There's been nothing systemic, nothing that seems to be widespread," said Matt Brix, director of Common Cause New Mexico.