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Election News: Historic vote saw ups and downs at the polls 

Long-time voting watchdog Richard King of Squirrel Hill spent Election Day conducting exit polls at the Schenley Golf Course polling place. 

"Maybe for the first time in three presidential election cycles, a president was elected legitimately," King concluded after he and two colleagues got results heavily in favor of Barack Obama, in numbers close to the actual machine tally. "It certainly feels like it to me."

Allegheny County Director of Elections Mark Wolosik says the election went "very well. There were only about 10 [machines out of 4,700] that we took out of service -- probably lower than when we had lever machines," which were last used in 2005 and have been replaced by computerized touch-screen iVotronics. Poll-watchers report several precincts where all the machines were temporarily inoperative, as well as machines that would not say they were empty of votes at the start of the day. But such problems were all resolved without preventing ballots from being cast. "This probably went better this time," Wolosik says, than on the six previous occasions that the machines were used. 

Voter turnout in the county was 68.2 percent -- large, but nowhere near the record of 87.9 percent of registered voters who hit the polls in 1960.

Still, poll-watchers from the national Election Protection Coalition found "incidents of voter intimidation and suppression," as well as registration snafus, says Pat Clark of Coalition member Pennsylvania Voice. (Editor's note: Clark is married to Al Hoff, CP associate editor.)

Collected at ourvotelive.org are 1,418 reports of voting problems in Allegheny County, as called in to 1-866-OUR-VOTE on Nov. 4. The single most-reported problem was registration difficulties (419 reports), but there were also 96 cases of alleged voter intimidation and 63 issues with poll workers. Nationally, there were 19,539 problems reported.

At mid-day, for instance, county spokesperson Kevin Evanto was saying that students at Duquesne University, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University had received text messages falsely claiming that they would be able to wait a day to vote if they wished to avoid those long lines." And a McKees Rocks housing project was papered with incorrect notices about a change in residents' polling location, one resident said. 

Clark spent Election Day filing blog reports on election complaints from all over Pennsylvania at everybodyvotenews.com. 

Mostly, he says, the day's major problems were "indicative of a system being overwhelmed by voters."

"If we had early elections in Pennsylvania, we would probably solve some of those problems we have with capacity," Clark adds. His group, Pennsylvania Voice, will be lobbying for early voting, which reportedly helped reduce Election Day lines at the polls in other states. State Rep. Eugene DePasquale, of York, plans to introduce an early-election law by January. Allowing people to vote for 13 hours on one day is outmoded, DePasquale says: "We don't want to disenfranchise anyone simply because they don't have time to get to the polls."

Making Provisions

Attorney Jeremy Friedman of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, a legal partner of the Coalition, answered calls from the county, including more than 30 voters whose registration showed up in state databases but not in voter rolls provided to poll workers. Those people, like more than 2,800 others in the county, were forced to fill out provisional ballots, which will count only if the county resolves such registration disputes after the election. "The last thing we want is to see voters leaving the polls because of the state's error," Friedman said.

Celeste Taylor, director of election administration and protection for Pennsylvania Voice, said her group will follow the provisional ballots to see how many the county counts. "We didn't in 2004," Taylor noted. "It gets tiring, election after election, with these systemic issues."

Sometimes the poll-watchers themselves were the subject of complaints. Audrey Glickman, another long-time vote-watcher from Squirrel Hill, attended the collection of precinct tallies at the Reizenstein Regional Tabulation Center -- one of several the county runs -- from which vote totals are sent Downtown. "Every poll worker was complaining about Election Protection people from out of state [who] were in your face and did not have good decorum with the poll workers" or the voters, she said. "They really weren't aware of the law and how it should be applied."

About 500 emergency paper ballots were used in the county, Mark Wolosik reported -- most during temporary machine failures, but some for real-life emergencies.

"We have 12 expectant mothers at Magee who are trying to cast ballots," said Friedman an hour before polls closed. There was also one 94-year-old who hadn't missed an election since she was 21, but who found herself in a nursing home on Nov. 4. For a time, one judge in the county's elections court wouldn't allow those citizens to cast their ballots from afar without getting them notarized. "We don't see anywhere in the statute that requires a notary," Friedman said. "We ended up getting the county to allow these ballots to be counted."

Perhaps more disturbing were multiple reports of poll workers mixing up two people with the same last name -- allowing Tom Jones, say, to vote under Tim Jones's name, thus preventing Tim from voting when he eventually showed up.

"For that one, I can't even tell you what a good solution is," Friedman said.

Ballot Punching

Considering the passions ignited by the endless presidential campaigns, it's perhaps surprising that there was only a single rumor of fisticuffs at county polling places. That occurred at Pitt's Posvar Hall -- the location with the most registered voters, according to Clark. Hundreds stood in long lines here and at other nearby spots where students were voting.

"Students were getting a bit frustrated," says Janet Markowitz of Oakland, a poll-watcher for two decades, "but they were excited to vote. What we were trying to do was keep the line moving" -- by calling the county to send more poll workers to help with voter check-in and reduce the wait of one to two hours. 

According to Markowitz, a poll-watcher for the Republicans objected to the new poll workers, and his vocal presence was discouraging some voters. (When contacted, this local lawyer confirmed his objection but refused to speak on the record.)

"They're people working [for] and sent out by the bureau of elections. I guess [the McCain poll-watcher] assumed it was our people" from the Obama camp who showed up to be deputized by the judge of elections in Posvar," said Markowitz. "I did walk over to him. I said, 'There are several people who have left.' They feel intimidated" from getting their registration issues corrected -- including a McCain voter, she added. But the Republican succeeded in getting an election judge's order to disallow the deputized poll workers.

"Tempers tend to flare with fatigue and this level of interest" in an election, concluded Stephen Magley, who also monitored Posvar for the Dems. "I did not see a fistfight, and I was there all day. 

"I would like to have seen it," he added, jokingly. "It would have been interesting to watch after eight hours of standing there and directing people to the left or to the right."

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