FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- Voters have been burning up the nonpartisan poll monitoring organization Election Protection's hot line today, with Florida, Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake region of Virginia hit hardest by long lines and machine malfunctions.
Nationwide, Election Protection's hot line, 866-OUR-VOTE, had received more than 65,000 calls as of 6:15 p.m. and more than 10,000 messages through its partner Twitter Vote Report as of 4 p.m. While many of these calls are simple inquiries about polling locations or questions about voting laws, there have also been more than 600 calls about voter intimidation and more than 1,700 calls about equipment problems.
Election Protection's knowledge of voter problems is necessarily limited to the phone calls and "tweets" it receives, but the picture being painted so far is one of long lines and confusion at polling sites, as well as some surprising new forms of high-tech voter suppression.
By midday, more than 1,000 people were standing in line at Beth Eden Baptist on Detroit's east side -- a five-hour wait that was largely the result of understaffing.
In Michigan, Election Protection is tracking widespread machine malfunctions that led overwhelmed poll workers to ask voters to write their votes on bits of paper with magic markers. And in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area of Florida, dozens of optical scan machines were reported broken.
Dispatches from Twitter Vote Report are showing polling problems, as well as providing some levity to a hectic day. A North Carolina voter reported, "[John] McCain supportors [sic] screaming @ voters Chatham County NC, Chatham Downs Poll -- [Barack] Obama voters go home. Classy!" Another quipped, "It took me longer to get my free Starbucks than to vote!"
Reports of tech-savvy voter suppression methods have poured in as well. At George Mason University in Virginia, a hacker posing as the school's provost sent an e-mail to 35,000 students, faculty and staff saying that the election had been moved to Nov. 5. Heather Smith, executive director of Rock the Vote, told reporters that young voters are receiving text messages that read, "Due to long lines today, all Obama voters are asked to vote on Wednesday. Thank you for your cooperation."
Election Protection officials said there have also been plenty of decidedly low-tech suppression gambits: anonymous calls telling people that they can vote by phone, and fliers at Drexel University warning students with unpaid parking tickets that they will be arrested at the polls.
Also coming into focus is a correlation between states that allowed in-person early voting and those reporting shorter lines and fewer mechanical problems, said Jonah Goldman, director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections and one of the leaders of Election Protection. Some of the most problematic states today -- Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York, where most of the calls originated -- do not let most residents vote in person before Election Day.
"Early voting allows there to be some testing of the waters," Goldman said.
Of course, since the vast majority of calls and tweets Election Protection receives are from problematic stations, the silent majority of properly functioning polling sites are lost in the shuffle. At midday, Election Protection volunteer Paul Kugelman stood guard at a mostly deserted Glen Forest Elementary School in Falls Church, Va. -- along with four lawyers fielded by the Obama campaign and another by McCain.
"There's no legal work being done in D.C. today," Kugelman joked to the Obama volunteers. "There's more lawyers here than voters."
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