Ready or not, here they come. As a record number of voters test the nation's shaky election infrastructure, the question is not whether problems will arise, but where.
Of course, long lines, voting machine shortages, mechanical breakdowns, disputes over voter lists and legal challenges could cause Election Day headaches virtually anywhere in the country. But in a few states, a worrisome combination of legal, administrative and partisan controversies spells trouble. Here are the most problematic battleground states to watch as the ballots roll in:
• Colorado: Secretary of State Mike Coffman has been labeled "Colorado's AWOL election chief" by a Denver Post columnist, thanks to his decision to run for Congress even as he oversees the election, including his own race. The Republican has faced calls for his resignation amid allegations of too-cozy relationships with election systems contractors, and his elections director, Holly Lowder, stepped down abruptly in September following an ethics controversy.
Colorado put in place its federally mandated statewide voter registration database just this year, missing its initial 2006 deadline. Public interest groups sued the state, alleging that 35,000 voters had been illegally blocked or purged from the rolls. A judge recently ruled that those voters may cast provisional ballots, which will be counted before any other provisional ballots. Eighteen initiatives [PDF] are on the ballot, the state's longest since 1912. The reliability of voting machines, some of which were decertified last year only to be recertified within months, has also been called into question. Electoral Votes: 9.
• Florida: The punch-card ballots are gone, but voters in some Florida counties will cast ballots using their third style of voting machine in as many presidential elections. In Palm Beach County, machines lost track of some 3,500 ballots during the state primary in August. In recent weeks, early voting has also spawned hours-long waits, prompting Gov. Charlie Crist to extend hours at early voting centers.
More than 12,000 voters have been relegated to provisional status due to a controversial "no match, no vote" law that bars new voters from registering if their driver's license or Social Security numbers don't perfectly match government records. But election officials in about half the state's counties have said they will allow flagged voters with proper ID to cast ballots anyway. This irregular enforcement, while applauded by voting rights advocates, could itself become the basis for a legal challenge. Electoral Votes: 27.
• Ohio: As if the long lines, contested voter rolls, partisan acrimony and razor-thin victory margin for President Bush in 2004 weren't enough, Ohio's recent string of legal battles rings alarm bells. Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, has tussled with state and federal GOP officials in more than a half-dozen lawsuits over the eligibility of some 200,000 new voters whose driver's license or Social Security numbers don't match government records. Republican challenges have been rebuffed by both the Supreme Court [PDF] and the Justice Department. But the GOP ruckus over alleged election fraud strikes many as a strategy to lay the groundwork for an Election Day legal challenge.
Ohio has registered more than 600,000 new voters since January, and this is also the first presidential race that will test the state's new voter ID law. The state has a history of overusing provisional ballots, which tend to spawn litigation and which are not tallied until 10 days after the election. Loyola Law School professor Richard Hasen has said, "It will be a gift from heaven if the election does not come down to Ohio or Florida." Electoral Votes: 20.
• Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania's voting machines are causing worries in a state that faced long lines in 2004. Most counties use voting machines with no voter verifiable paper trail, meaning votes can't be recovered or recounted in the event of a breakdown. The NAACP successfully sued Secretary of the Commonwealth Pedro Cortés recently to overturn his directive that emergency paper ballots be handed out only if all the touch-screen machines in a given precinct broke down. Now the paper ballots will be handed out if more than half the machines fail.
State laws require more voting machines than have been allocated, according to the Advancement Project, a civil rights group, which also warns that poll workers are improperly distributed. Election protection advocates are also on the lookout for deceptive practices, such as fliers that advertise the wrong election day, and voting headaches for students at the state's large number of colleges and universities. Electoral Votes: 21.
• Virginia: The state NAACP and other civil rights groups recently sued Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, claiming inadequate preparation for the more than 300,000 voters who have joined the state's rolls since January. Virginia polling places were overwhelmed in 2004, and state law requires only one machine for every 750 voters. "That's just not enough machines for too many voters," said Tova Wang, an elections specialist for public interest group Common Cause.
Deceptive fliers have cropped up, and problems could arise for student voters, who earlier this year were improperly blocked from registering at their dormitory addresses. "It's never been a battleground state before," noted Wang. "There are not the resources in the state, and there are not the protocols in place to handle it." Electoral Votes: 13.