COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A big turnout, voting-machine breakdowns and misinformation about voter eligibility requirements snarled balloting at many of the nation's polling places Tuesday, forcing Americans determined to help decide the fiercely fought presidential race to wait as long as five hours to vote.
The crush of voters apparently took many county election officials by surprise.
Allegations of voting rights, other irregularities and "inexcusable" election planning flew in the swing states of Ohio, Virginia and Florida. Virginia and Florida held polls open until midnight for voters who were in line when they were scheduled to close.
Despite the lessons of recent presidential elections in which voters waited long hours at inner-city polls, in cities big and small it was deja vu Tuesday.
In Richland County, S.C., Sharon Bruce waited for nearly five hours to vote. In Missouri, the secretary of state's office predicted turnout would be 72 percent, up from 69 percent four years ago. "We were just hammered," said Johnson County, Kan., election commissioner Brian D. Newby.
Voters across Virginia endured long waits -- as long as five hours in Chesapeake, said Barbara Arnwine, president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and leader of the Election Protection coalition, which dispatched 7,000 volunteers, including 5,000 lawyers, to patrol the balloting nationwide.
"Everybody has known for at least the last two weeks how strong the early voting has been in the states that allowed it," Ms. Arnwine said. "These other states have seen that and should have been prepared for a massive voter turnout. Instead, they have insufficiently staffed -- insufficient machines, insufficient polling sites. Inexcusable. It really requires that our nation look at and examine how we are administering our democracy."
While results from storm-devastated New Jersey were not expected to affect the final outcome, election watchdogs labeled its voting process "a catastrophe" after a late decision to allow email voting crashed computer servers and jammed fax lines in large counties. Facing a potentially huge disenfranchisement of voters, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno extended balloting until 8 p.m. Friday.
Ohio's system for verifying registered voters has drawn fire after 33,000 applicants for absentee ballots were wrongfully turned away. They were mistakenly told that they were not registered to vote -- an oversight that state officials blamed on a data-sharing problem with the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
On the east side of Columbus, Ohio, many first-time voters flocked to the Blackburn Recreation Center, including 21-year-old Tyreshia Cody, a restaurant worker and part-time college student. Ms. Cody said poll workers helped steer her through the confusion, because "I didn't have any idea what I was doing."
Other young voters at the Blackburn center weren't as fortunate, said Sarah Biehl, the voting location manager. "There have been a lot of young, first-time voters coming in who are very excited to vote, and they're not on our poll books," Ms. Biehl said. "They're not in the rolls, or they're in the wrong place. For some of them, the address is incorrect. We've had a lot of issues, and it's not just young people. We had other people who had been voting here for years, and now they're not in the poll books. And it's not clear to me why."
Ms. Biehl gestured toward a cardboard box stuffed with many of those voters' provisional ballots, which must pass tougher thresholds to be counted.
"We suspect that there's been purging of voters that has been unreported and not conducted properly under the standards required by the National Voter Registration Act," Ms. Arnwine said. Under the law, if a registered voter does not cast a ballot in a presidential election, his name is supposed to remain on the rolls for four more years.
Election Day in Ohio started with a new controversy. Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted was drawn into court by an eleventh-hour lawsuit. Green Party congressional candidate Bob Fitrakis accused Mr. Husted of skirting state law and contracting for vote-tabulation software that wasn't properly certified, and that contained a "back door" to rig the votes.
At a hearing, lawyers for Mr. Husted presented testimony that the state's electronic votes -- backed up by paper ballots -- are totaled at the county level. Hours later, U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost denied a request for a temporary restraining order barring use of the software, ruling that the allegations were "speculative" and failed to show a "realistic possibility" of harm. "This suit was completely baseless and caused unnecessary concern and confusion," Mr. Husted said in a written statement.
In Florida, Ms. Arnwine said, two Fort Lauderdale precincts created an appearance of disparate treatment based on race. One precinct had 24,000 registered voters, 72 percent of whom were black, who waited in a long line for one voting machine. At the other, with a far-smaller voting roll, of which 27 percent are African-American, 10 people waited for two machines, she said.