Election Day sees heavy voter turnout
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Western Pennsylvania voters flocked to the polls in what could turn out to be record numbers today, with long lines reported well before the 7 a.m. voting start and the steady turnout continuing through the evening until polls closed.
Allegheny County Bureau of Elections Director Mark Wolosik predicted a 75 percent turnout of the county's 956,000 registered voters, and anecdotal evidence around the region suggested heavy turnout. Voting hours were not extended, and polls closed at 8 p.m. Allegheny County Elections Court closed a short time later, at 8:10 p.m.
Earlier in the day, the elections court received reports of text messages that were sent to students at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Duquesne University telling them that due to long lines, voting had been extended until tomorrow. These messages were not true. Allegheny County elections officials emphasized that voting would take place only until 8 tonight, although anyone in line at 8 p.m. was to be permitted to cast a ballot.
By early evening, a dozen women in labor in Allegheny County were among more than 100 voters around southwestern Pennsylvania who complained of voting irregularities to the American Civil Liberties Union, according to the group's legal director for Pennsylvania.
Nine women at Magee-Women's Hospital of UPMC and four women at Allegheny General Hospital who went into labor this morning requested emergency absentee ballots, which must be issued by the county Common Pleas Court, according to ACLU legal director Witold Walczak.
The women's doctors signed the absentee ballot request forms, attesting that their patients could not have requested absentee ballots before today and could not have reached the polls today due to disability or illness.
Republicans, however, objected to the requests on the grounds that the doctors' signatures weren't notarized, according to Mr. Walczak. Common Pleas Court judges have rejected the requests three times today, most recently at about 6:30 p.m. Lawyers for the ACLU were studying whether the decision could be appealed to Commonwealth Court, he said.
But at least some of the women got a shot at voting later in the evening after Charles F. Perego, a volunteer lawyer with the state Democratic Party, offered to help. Mr. Perego, who also is a notary, arranged for a secretary to bring his seal to court.
Mr. Perego took the seal to Magee, where he asked the women in labor there to sign their request forms again and then notarized them. A judge issued emergency ballots for those women after another volunteer rushed the notarized requests back to the court.
A sheriff's deputy transported the ballots to Magee at 7:40 p.m. It was not immediately clear if the women there were able to complete the ballots by 8 p.m. or why the women in labor at AGH were not able to obtain a similar remedy.
In other incidents, poll workers in Westmoreland County asked voters to show photo identification, although they were not allowed to request ID, according to Mr. Walczak.
A group canvassing Jefferson Hills voters to turn out the vote for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama were told by a local police officer that they could not do so without a permit; the officer was incorrect, Mr. Walczak said.
A polling place in Natrona Heights also closed for an hour or two at about 5 p.m., turning away several would-be voters, Mr. Walczak said. He was not sure why workers closed the polling place.
Elections officials had warned that there could be backups before and after people went to work, and that turned out to be the case between 7 and 9 a.m.
Unusually long lines were reported at polling places in Shaler, Edgewood, East Washington and Indiana Township. Tillie Simpson, a veteran poll worker in East Washington, said she's "never seen anything like it."
The crowd began gathering at 6:30 a.m. on the campus of Chatham University and by the time the polls opened there were 51 people in line. Number 12 was a fatigue-lined man who didn't get up early to vote. He just hadn't been to sleep all night.
Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin arrived back in Pittsburgh at 3:30 after last night's Monday Night Football victory over Washington, went to the office, and about three hours later joined the queue. He passed the time by punching numbers into his cellphone, talking football with friends and thinking about how, with a day less than usual to prepare, he would ready his team for the Indianapolis Colts Sunday. Would he get to sleep sometime Tuesday? Probably not, he said. ``I can sleep,'' he said into the phone, ``when I'm dead.''
Several precincts in Butler County also had heavy turnouts to start the day. At the Mikan auto dealership in Butler Township, 21 voters were in line by 6:45 a.m. At a precinct in Connoquenessing Township, 89 were lined up at 7. And in Forward, the line at 7:20 ran from the township building, through a maintenance garage and out into a parking lot. Turnout was heavy in Cranberry, too.
At St. Bede School in Pittsburgh's Point Breeze, voters were waiting as early as 6:30. A poll worker said that's the first time she had seen that in 40 years of staffing that polling place.
Eighty people were lined up at the start of voting at St. Alexis School in McCandless, but that had thinned out considerably by 9 a.m.
In West Mifflin's 18th district voting site at Emerson School, there were 270 voters byt noontime, almost double what the district normally gets.
A Mt. Lebanon precinct had 300 by 1 p.m.
And a Green Tree site saw its 500th voter around 2 p.m. Workers there believed their all-time record turnout was in the low 800's.
The city of Duquesne's District 1 voting site, on Commonwealth and Overland avenues, had 126 voters by 10:30 a.m., which reportedly was a full-day voter count for that district in prior elections.
Around the area, coffee chains were offering free cups to those who could produce a voting stub, and the Meadows casino was offering $10 in free play.
A couple early problems were reported. One precinct in Squirrel Hill reportedly started the day with paper ballots because none of the voting machines were working. The same problem was reported at an East McKeesport center.
Not all nine machines serving three precincts at Turner School in Wilkinsburg were operating initially. That and people trying to vote before work caused a line of about 200 people early.
As of 4 p.m., Allegheny County has used 264 emergency paper ballots and 166 provisional ballots. As a reminder, emergency paper ballots are only used if 50 percent or more of voting machines in a precinct are not working. There are currently no precincts using emergency paper ballots.
Polls are open in Pennsylvania until 8 p.m. Anyone in line at 8 p.m. will be able to vote.
In other counties in the region, officials reported heavy voter turnout and few problems.
"As many places as we've spoken to, there are lines everywhere," Beaver County Elections Director Dorene Mandity said around noon today.
The morning rush of voters was unusually heavy, and Ms. Mandity predicted at least a 70 percent turnout of registered voters, which was the mark during the last presidential election in 2004.
"We expect no less than that this time," she said.
Turnout was also strong in Armstrong County. Wendy Buzard, director of the Elections/Voter Registration Department, pegged it as higher than normal for a presidential election year.
"Turnout has been very heavy. Talking to our judges of elections, they've had steady turnout since first thing this morning," Ms. Buzard said.
Larry Spahr, director of the elections office in Washington County, said turnout was about normal for a year with a presidential race, which is about double what it is when there is not. Mr. Spahr, as his counterparts, reported only minor problems.
"Just the typical," he said. "We have people calling in questioning registration, inquiring about registration, emergency ballots in some instances. Other than that it's pretty normal."
A voting rights advocate says hundreds of Penn State students were being forced to vote by provisional ballot at the main campus.
James Browning of Common Cause said that election workers are not checking supplemental registration books for the names of Penn State students who registered just before the deadline.
Someone who votes by provisional ballot could be required to appear at the courthouse at a later date to vouch for their identity if they want their vote to count.
Centre County's election director, Joyce McKinley, said she'll check on the matter but didn't have any information about provisional ballots in Penn State precincts.
Ms. McKinley said she knows some provisional ballots have been cast in Centre County, but she doesn't think it's a great number.
For those who still need to make up their mind on candidates and issues, post-gazette.com can help:
• Access the Post-Gazette's Voters Guide.
• Visit the the post-gazette.com Election 2008 page
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First Published November 4, 2008 7:00 am