A voter checks in at her polling place in North Philadelphia. Pennsylvania… (Jessica Kourkounis / Getty…)
In one Florida county, voters were wrongly told they could vote the day after the election. In storm-racked New Jersey, emergency plans to allow email voting proved too popular for election officials to handle. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, a variety of problems raised questions about the integrity of the vote.
Although most Americans cast ballots without incident Tuesday, there were enough glitches to cause concern among voting rights activists and to provide work for some of the thousands of lawyers who were standing by, representing parties, candidates and nonpartisan voter advocacy groups.
"Unfortunately, it's a long American tradition," said Rick Hasen, a law professor at UC Irvine who writes a popular blog on election issues. He said it was difficult to say whether there were more problems in this election than usual, but that interest in voting difficulties was higher.
The heightened vigilance reflected the tight race between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney and the possibility that a relative handful of votes in a battleground state could determine the election. Although Obama won, the gap in both Ohio and Florida did turn out to be a sliver of the vote.
The problems that cropped up were both prosaic and, in some cases, highly unusual.
Long lines in many jurisdictions attested to the American democratic spirit and some inadequate local electoral systems. Voting rights advocates blamed some of the long lines on decisions by some states to cut back on early voting hours, forcing more people to vote on election day.
"This is a disgrace to this country," former Vice President Al Gore said on Current TV. The lines in predominantly black neighborhoods in Florida, he said, bring to mind the Jim Crow laws that deprived African Americans of the right to vote after Reconstruction. The lines forced election officials in some areas to keep polls open well after their scheduled closing time.
Pennsylvania was the site of some of the most widely reported problems. The most serious involved confusion over the state's new voter identification law and an attempt to keep GOP poll watchers from monitoring heavily Democratic precincts in Philadelphia.
A judge ordered election officials to admit the Republican monitors, according to state GOP officials. In a separate case, Republicans successfully petitioned to cover up a mural of President Obama in a Philadelphia polling place.
And in heavily Democratic Philadelphia County, dozens of registered voters complained that they were forced to use provisional ballots because their names did not appear on voter rolls.
Ellen Kaplan, vice president of the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan voters rights group, said the problem seemed to be linked to a backlog of voter registration applications that were not processed by state officials until last week. She said voters were told to use provisional ballots even when they could prove their registration status.
"They were all coming in with iPads and iPhones and looking it up," she said.
Perhaps the most widely observed problem occurred in central Pennsylvania, where a voter posted a YouTube video that showed him attempting to vote for Obama on an electronic voting machine that kept switching the vote to Romney.
"As far as we know, it was an isolated incident," said Ron Ruman, a spokesman for Pennsylvania's Department of State.
In Pinellas County, Fla., about 12,000 households received phone calls early Tuesday with an automated message saying the voters still had until the following day to turn in their absentee ballots. By then, of course, the election would be over.
The Pinellas County elections department sent the calls — which were to have been made Monday — by mistake, according to Nancy Whitlock, the department's communications director.
The phone mix-up was one of a scattered number of problems across Florida, the huge and volatile swing state that has been on high alert for issues of potential voter suppression or other problems that could reduce turnout. Incomplete returns from Florida raised the possibility that the presidential race could be within the 0.5% threshold for triggering an automatic recount. It also seemed possible that Ohio would be within an even tighter recount threshold of 0.25%.
In Miami-Dade County, where some voters waited six hours during early voting, some polling places had around-the-block lines again when polls opened Tuesday morning. In Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, the phones in the elections department were working only intermittently, said Travis Abercrombie, a department spokesman.