Voter Surge Catches Virginia Off Stride

Long lines of voters in Hampton, Virginia. CBS EyeMoblie

CBS News Investigative Producers Pat Milton and Laura Strickler wrote this story for CBSNews.com.

The biggest problem in the State of Virginia was simply too many voters, in a state that was not prepared for the unprecedented number of citizens who showed up early Tuesday to cast their ballot in the historic presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain.

State officials said they never anticipated the surge of voters - 40 percent of Virginia's 5 million registered voters - voted before 10:30 in the morning, many standing in lines that stretched blocks before the polling doors opened at 6 a.m.

"It was phenomenal,'' declared Susan Pollard, a Virginia Election Board spokeswoman.

The huge turnout contributed to voting problems throughout Virginia - a key battleground state - where there were numerous reports of voting machine malfunctions, the use of backup paper ballots and unbearably long lines. The lines were as long as five to seven hours in some districts but shrunk down to two hours by early evening.

In Richmond, one precinct had five of its seven voting machines break down forcing voters frustrated from waiting in the rain to fill out optical scan ballots. Another polling location in Richmond was delayed in opening after the person who had the keys to the door overslept.

To the south of Richmond in Hampton, Va., paper ballots were placed in duffle bags, approved to move ballots to a safe place to be counted in the presence of officials of both political parties.

Watchdog groups were critical of state officials contending they had ample warning of the large turnout.

Gerry Hebert, executive director of Campaign Legal Center, a non-profit election reform organization, has been monitoring the Virginia precincts.

"It's disappointing,'' said Hebert. For a state that held itself up as being prepared, they were not. They had an insufficient number of machines.'' The Board of Election officials says they had the correct number provided under law.

Meanwhile, a federal judge Tuesday ordered election officials in Virginia to preserve late arriving absentee ballots in response to a lawsuit filed by the McCain campaign. McCain campaign officials claimed that absentee ballots weren't mailed on time to many military personnel overseas preventing the military from returning their ballots by Election Day. The complaint asks the court to order the state to count absentee ballots from overseas troops postmarked Tuesday but received by Nov. 14. The judge ordered election officials to keep the late arriving ballots until a hearing could be held on the issue Nov. 10.

Most voters took the troubles in stride as the glitches seemed to resolve by late afternoon in time for a second big wave of voting in a state in which a Democrat has not won the presidential race since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

By Pat Milton
  • Pat Milton

    Pat Milton is a CBS News investigative producer

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