Norfolk, Va. — If there is an election meltdown Tuesday, it may happen at places like P.B. Young Sr. Elementary School.
The squat brick school in a dingy postwar housing project near downtown Norfolk usually draws little attention on election day. This year, however, could be different.
Voter registration is up more than 40% in the surrounding neighborhood, but the school may get just one additional voting machine. That could mean each machine would be used by as many as 350 voters on election day, according to an analysis by Advancement Project, a Washington-based voting rights group.
There already have been reports of long lines at early voting sites nationwide, including Florida and Georgia. Now, election watchdogs are worried that hundreds of thousands of would-be voters at places like Young Elementary will give up on casting ballots if lines are long Tuesday, dealing a blow to voting rights far more serious than the claims of voter intimidation and malfunctioning machinery that make headlines.
"This has the potential to disenfranchise a heck of a lot more people than, dare I say it, hacked electronic voting machines," said Tova Wang, vice president for research at Common Cause, which has been monitoring potential balloting problems ahead of this week's vote.
During the 2004 presidential election, long lines at polling places in Cleveland, Columbus and other Ohio locations caused as many as 129,000 voters to get tired of waiting and not vote, according to one survey commissioned by Democrats after the election.
Ohio that year was one of the central battleground states, as it is again this year. But even more voters are expected to head to the polls this election day. The number of registered voters in the state has surged to 8.3 million, up more than 300,000 from four years ago, according to the secretary of state's office.
Other battleground states have seen more dramatic registration gains, and election officials are predicting record turnouts for an election that has gripped the nation.
Voting rights groups warn that confusion over new registration data, new identification requirements or challenges from party officials at voting sites could exacerbate delays.
"Every time there is a challenge, there has to be a way to adjudicate that," said Jonah Goldman, director of the watchdog group National Campaign for Fair Elections. "That process takes time. It takes a poll worker away from his or her regular duties. And that means possibly chaos at the polls and longer lines."
Many states have taken steps to alleviate the anticipated crush. Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has issued a directive mandating all polling places to have one voting machine for every 175 voters. They also have been encouraging people to vote early or vote by mail to avoid long lines on election day.
But several battleground states have limited early voting, including Pennsylvania and Virginia, which both require voters to explain why they can't vote on election day in order to cast ballots before Tuesday.
Election watchdogs are particularly worried about Virginia, which until this year had not been a presidential battleground in decades. Neighborhoods like the one around Norfolk's Young Elementary -- once the heart of the city's black community -- were election afterthoughts, rarely visited even by Democratic presidential campaigns.
Arlene Watts, who has lived a few blocks from the school for more than 20 years, said the only evidence of John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign were fliers left on doorsteps.
This year, volunteers from Barack Obama's local campaign office have blanketed the area, visiting and revisiting the housing project and the scruffy neighborhood nearby to register voters and ensure they vote.
"Seems like we've seen someone just about every day," Watts said.
Obama is counting on heavy turnout by new voters in long-ignored minority precincts to swing the state into the Democratic column for the first time in 34 years. Voter registration in Virginia has surged nearly 10% since 2004, to more than 5 million.
Norfolk residents waited more than two hours at City Hall last week to cast absentee ballots. Norfolk officials would not discuss the city's election preparations. But state officials insist they are ready, noting that Virginia has nearly doubled the number of voting machines in the last four years.
"We are expecting long lines, but we feel prepared," said Jessica Lane, spokeswoman for the state Board of Elections. "If everyone is in line by 7 p.m., people will be able to vote."
Others are less convinced. Advancement Project last week sued the state election board and election officials in Richmond, Virginia Beach and Norfolk in a bid for more voting machines to be deployed to polling stations. A hearing is scheduled for Monday in a Richmond federal court.