High turnout, budget woes fuel Election Day snarls

Story highlights

Long lines, particularly in Florida, frustrated voters

"We have to fix that," Obama says

Budget crunches and late rule changes complicated the polls, experts say

Some counties used early voting to consolidate polling places, Ohio observer says

CNN —  

Five hours after the polls closed in Miami, there were still people standing in line to cast ballots.

They were still there when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney conceded early Wednesday morning in Boston his race to unseat President Barack Obama. Some of them were still there when Obama gave his victory speech nearly an hour later in Chicago, thanking those who “waited in line for a very long time” to vote.

“By the way, we have to fix that,” he added.

A dozen years after Florida’s presidential recount exposed cracks in the basic machinery of American democracy, people who deal with the nuts and bolts of elections say things ran fairly smoothly on Tuesday.

There’s no indication that any of the problems that were reported affected the outcome.

See how Florida voted

But in states where the race for president was hotly contested, high turnout, combined with last-minute rule changes, budget pressure and local factors such as the 12-page ballot in Florida, snarled the process and led to some frustrated voters walking away.

“Everybody’s trying to do the best they can not to have the best election or the fairest election, but to screw the opposition,” said one frustrated Florida voter.

Paul Herrnson, a government professor at the University of Maryland, said the biggest congestion problems are often in communities that can’t afford to streamline voting.

“Those communities, counties usually, have to decide between paying money for voting systems and election administration and roads, bridges, and hospitals,” he said. “And of course, voting systems come in last.”

After the Florida recount in 2000, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act and created the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

But the commission has no regulatory authority; all four of its seats are currently vacant; and the money Congress appropriated to improve voting systems has been spent, said Kim Brace, a Washington-area election specialist.

Five things we learned on Election Night

Voting machines purchased after Florida’s debacle of “hanging chads” and “butterfly ballots” that left some voters confused are now wearing down, “and the old operating systems of 2002 are no longer around,” said Brace, president of Election Data Services, a consulting firm specializing in election administration.

“People would like to buy better machines or have more of them,” he said. “But the financial problems of the last two to four years have really played havoc on local election officials.”

Many states overhauled their election laws and expanded the use of early voting.

But this year, Republican administrations in Florida and Ohio led efforts to scale back early voting, leading to late-inning court battles. In addition, in early October, a federal court blocked Pennsylvania’s effort to enforce a voter identification law.

“Certainly, changing the rules at the last minute makes no sense at all if you’re trying to make sure your poll workers are trained properly,” Brace said. The rules should be set by the spring, so election officials can use primary contests to test their processes “when I don’t have 85% of my people showing up.”

Yes, 85% – or close to it. Brace is also a poll worker and a member of the canvassing board in Prince William County, Virginia, on the outskirts of Washington, where Tuesday’s turnout at his precinct was 83%, he said.

Long lines and wait times are “not entirely surprising” in a presidential election year, said Carrie Davis, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. The expansion of early voting helped ease Election Day lines at polling places, she said – but that also led some counties to consolidate voting precincts to save money.

Election 2012: Complete results

“That only works if that early and absentee voting stays available,” said Davis, whose group was involved in earlier court cases over Ohio’s voting rules and filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a dispute over counting provisional ballots this year.

Ohio Republicans had attempted to cut off early voting in the last three days before the election, arguing they needed that time to organize and prepare for Tuesday. Democrats argued that the move would have disproportionately affected Democratic voters, and the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the move in mid-October.

Davis said there were a few early problems Tuesday with voting machines in the Cleveland and Akron areas, but “On the whole, yes, it went smoothly. There were no major systemic problems like we’ve seen in previous elections, like Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004.”

Early voting in Florida was supposed to have stopped on Saturday. But with long lines still outside the polling places in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, state Democrats asked Gov. Rick Scott to extend early voting.

Though his two predecessors – fellow Republicans – had agreed to similar requests, Scott refused. The Democrats went to court; in the meantime, officials in those counties allowed people to take absentee ballots, fill them out and hand them back in.

Scott defended his refusal, saying 4.4 million Floridians ultimately cast ballots before Election Day.

Redistricting after the 2010 Census and a ballot that took some voters up to half an hour to fill out contributed to this year’s problems in Florida, Miami-Dade deputy elections supervisor Christina White said. Election officials were still finishing the count there Wednesday night.

“It’s not that there were any problems or glitches, which is the word that is commonly used,” White said. “It’s not about that. It’s about the volume of paper we’re processing.”

Where Obama, and America, go from here

CNN correspondents John Zarrella and Brian Todd contributed to this report.