Voters turned out in big numbers at the polls Tuesday and suffered through long lines for as much as two hours in some precincts, despite laws allowing early balloting in more than half the states and an array of newfangled voting machines that were supposed to streamline the election process.
The long waits Americans endured prompted elections scholars to question whether there is a better way to run an election, such as voting over the Internet or other expansions of absentee voting.
“If you’re referring to Internet voting, we’re still ways away from that,” says Thomas Mann, election expert at the Brookings Institution. “There are daunting security problems.”
If anything, Mr. Mann says, “we’re moving in the opposite direction” with many of the nation’s more than 7,000 election jurisdictions abandoning voting machines and returning to old-time paper ballots.
Instead, Mr. Mann sees early voting and possible extended time of balloting - such as a weekend day in addition to the time-honored first-Tuesday-of-November day of voting - as a cure for long lines in the presidential election of 2012.
Election specialist Curtis Gans, though, says early and absentee voting threatens to trivialize voting and exposes the system to fraud. Instead he calls for more voting machines and keeping the polls open longer on Election Day.
“Mail voting and absentee voting are the single most vulnerable part of our election that can lead to fraud because it eliminates the secret ballot,” said Mr. Gans, director of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate.
He noted that states do not verify the identity of absentee or mail-in voters and cannot monitor whether votes are cast under duress or coercion.
Forensic computer specialist Rebecca Mercuri not only objected to Internet voting as “totally unsafe” but also balked at the use - echoing the back-to-the-future trend of which Mr. Mann speaks - of most electronic voting machines.
“Paper,” she said. “It’s a great thing. You can have multiple people voting at the same time and it doesn’t break down. It is the most fast and most secure voting method, and we already have it.”
A record number of voters this year have taken advantage of early voting: More than 40 million voters cast early in-person ballots in 31 states including the battleground states of Ohio and Florida, where long lines marked Election Day as an estimated 100,000 more voters crowded polling stations across the country.
At that rate, early voting would account for about 28 percent of the turnout - up from 22 percent in 2004 and 15 percent in 2000.
Virginia was no different. A whopping 64 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots before Election Day this year, according to the secretary of state’s office. That allowed the state to avoid most of the hassles associated with the 2004 election, when two-hour waits and lines around the block were the norm.
Elections officials in Richmond said 30 percent to 40 percent of the state’s more than 5 million registered voters had cast ballots Tuesday morning, about twice the usual pace.
An estimated 75 percent of Virginia’s registered voters were expected to have cast ballots by the time the polls closed at 7 p.m., said Nancy Rodrigues, executive secretary of the State Board of Elections.
Colorado, along with Virginia and Ohio and other battleground states, saw its share of voting problems, including a protest by the Colorado Progressive Coalition claiming an absence of Spanish-language voting instructions and a limited number of Spanish-speaking poll workers.
Otherwise, things went fairly smoothly, particularly compared with 2004, said election volunteer Jerry Reichardt in Denver.
“Four years ago, it was a madhouse,” Mr. Reichardt said, “but we added volunteers this year, and we have the paper and the machine option, and then they had all this early voting. There’s no comparison to the last election.”
In Michigan, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Terry Lynn Land, Kelley Chesney, called statewide voter turnout “tremendous” by mid-afternoon.
Across metropolitan Detroit, lines ranged from 2 1/2 hours in some inner-city voting stations to as little as 20 minutes in the suburbs.
In the state capital, Lansing, voter Jeffrey Jackson, 33, said he came to his polling place around 7:30 a.m. prepared with a book and coffee, and was happy to wait his turn. It took him about 35 minutes, which he said was far less than he’d anticipated.
“I think everyone expected it would take longer this year,” he said. “It’s heartening to see this turnout, but it should be like this every election.”
But that would mean more waiting.
“Biologically, we’re capable of waiting. There is nothing wrong with waiting. We’ve just been socialized to demand things to be superfast,” says Sheri Parks, American Studies professor at the University of Maryland. “But ultimately, if it’s important enough - like voting or having a baby - we’re willing to wait.”
• Valerie Richardson, Andrea Billups and Jon Ward contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire service reports.