‘Massive confusion,’ long lines reported at polling places nationwide

NEW YORK — Voters across the country reported hours-long lines, intimidation tactics and other barriers to voting on Election Day.

Voter advocates at the Election Protection call center said they received more than 63,000 calls to a hotline for voters encountering problems hours before polls closed Tuesday on the East Coast. Barbara Arnwine, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which runs the hotline, said there was “massive confusion in multiple states over the right voter identification requirements.”

Widespread problems were reported in New York and New Jersey, where voters displaced by Hurricane Sandy were given the option to vote by email. Arwine called voting in New Jersey “a catastrophe.” At least part of the problem in that state was technological.

“The servers went down in three counties in New Jersey,” said Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote. “People are emailing scanned PDF forms. When it doesn’t work, they’re trying four or five times, and the server’s down.”

New Jersey voters were told they could vote at any polling place, but some affected by the storm are still stuck out of state. Others reported worrying about using up gasoline, which has been hard to get in the aftermath of last week’s megastorm, Smith said. While the hurricane created unexpected chaos late in the election, other problems — long wait times and confusion about voter registration — were expected.

“This is one of those situations where you think, ‘Are we still dealing with these same problems?’” Smith said. “Every four years, the same things come up. It’s frustrating that we don’t deal with it.”

In Pennsylvania, voters complained of more nefarious barriers to exercising their voting rights. Pennsylvania voters in Allegheny and Fayette counties said they were being intercepted by poll watchers who directed them away from the polling places where they were registered, according to government watchdogs.

“Those are probably the most egregious,” said Barry Kauffman, director of the voter advocacy group Common Cause Pennsylvania. “They would be intercepting voters, asking them their names and then saying, ‘You’re not on my list.’ Some of the people allegedly were walking away before they got to the poll workers. There was a court order late this morning telling those poll watchers that nobody may ask for ID except for official poll watchers. They were working for the county Republican Committee.”

A spokesman for Allegheny County was in Election Court and didn’t immediately return a request for comment on Tuesday. The Keystone State also saw widespread confusion over ID requirements, according to Common Cause.

“In Pennsylvania, there are misleading and, frankly, poorly trained workers requiring ID where they shouldn’t be,” said Jenny Flanagan, Common Cause’s director of voting and elections. “We had the state of Pennsylvania still putting out mailers — that came from the state — saying if you want to vote, show it. They had an obligation to educate the public after the court decided that photo ID would not be required. They did not and it’s shameful.”

Pennsylvania sent out more than 8 million flyers to Pennsylvania voters the first week of September that indicated ID would be required at polling places, but none since then, according to spokesman Matthew Keeler.

“The fact that this one reached this voter yesterday or today is either a cause by delay in the mail or it was lost and finally returned,” Keeler said. “It was not supposed to go out recently.”

Keeler also defended the state’s voter education campaign in the wake of an October ruling that allowed Pennsylvania voters to vote without ID. After that decision, the department began running TV, radio and newspaper ads to notify the public of the change, he said. He also said the department made an effort to update polling workers, who over the summer received a guide that trained them to ask for IDs.

Voters complained about long lines in polling places across the country, even in states like Colorado where a huge portion of the electorate votes early. Because Colorado has “no-excuse” early voting, 70 percent of eligible voters turn in their ballots early, according to a spokesman for the secretary of state. Colorado also set up voting centers that enabled voters to cast ballots in any facility within their county, but that didn’t quell long lines at the short-staffed facilities, Flanagan said.

“All of our counties in the nation are overworked and understaffed,” Flanagan said. “The 70 percent [who vote early], those are the most active voters in the state. What we see on Election Day, the people who run into problems, are people who get engaged later in the game. They don’t have less of a right to vote. People who wait until Election Day, they have every right to watch what happens with the candidates until the end. We don’t have enough protections.”

Having a bad experience, especially for less-engaged voters, “definitely has an impact on whether or not they’ll come back,” she said. Voters reported waiting in line for as long as two to four hours in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, Texas and Virginia.

“We have a lot of problems,” Flanagan said. “We don’t know if we’ll know who our president is at the end of the night. We don’t know what problems might continue to crop up. But we do know people care. They care so much that they’re willing to stand in line, they bring their children because it’s that important. Americans know that people fought and died for this right and they’re not going to get out of line.”

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