WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. voters complained about erratic implementation of voter ID laws, while long lines and makeshift polling sites in storm-hit New York and New Jersey added to confusion in a bitterly contested presidential election.
Watchdog groups reported complaints from people turned away from polls because they did not have identification in states like Pennsylvania, where ID was not required. In swing states Virginia and Florida, long lines led to numerous complaints and fears that people would give up without casting a ballot, while large numbers of people in Ohio reported being forced to vote by provisional ballot.
It was unclear what impact the voting irregularities might have on an election that caps a close presidential campaign between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Throughout the day, voters in Pennsylvania, which saw court battles over controversial voter ID requirements, reported getting conflicting messages over whether an identification was required to vote. A judge had ruled the new voter ID law could not be implemented this election because there was not enough time to ensure all registered voters had proper identification.
But poll workers were still requesting voter IDs, and reports surfaced of people being turned away if they could not produce one, witnesses and watchdog groups reported.
“The commonwealth’s effort to inform their citizens and election officials that their voter ID law was struck down was wholly inadequate,” said Eric Marshall and Marcia Johnson-Blanco, leaders of the Election Protection hotline that received nearly 89,000 calls from people reporting problems voting.
“The state shirked its responsibility to properly educate voters and poll workers about the ID requirements which led to reports of voters incorrectly being required to show ID across the state,” Marshall and Johnson-Blanco said in a statement.
Election Protection said there were signs outside some voting areas in parts of Pennsylvania falsely telling people they needed an ID.
Pennsylvania’s ID rules were among a raft of new voting laws passed mostly by Republican-led legislatures in dozens of states since 2011. The courts have thrown out the harshest of the new laws, or at least ordered delayed implementation.
Republicans had their own complaints in Pennsylvania. The party got a court order to reinstate 75 Republican election officials in Philadelphia who allegedly were prohibited from entering polling places.
In Ohio, many people complained they had been forced to vote by provisional ballot after their names did not appear on voter rolls.
Ohio regularly has the highest number of provisional ballots each presidential election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s Law School. This year, numbers are likely to exceed 200,000 provision ballots, which will not be counted until at least November 17.
Long lines at polls in many states prompted concerns that some voters would walk away without casting ballots. Lengthy waits to vote were reported in Florida, Virginia and Ohio, all key swing states, as well as New Jersey and New York, states that were walloped a week ago by superstorm Sandy.
Final election results from Florida’s Miami-Dade County, which accounts for about 10 percent of the state’s registered voters, will not be available until Wednesday afternoon, a senior election official announced late on Tuesday.
Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Penelope Townsley said the delay was due to a high volume of absentee ballots and because a handful of precincts had voters still casting ballots after 10 p.m. EST (0300 GMT on Wednesday).
In a sign of the importance of the Florida vote, Obama tweeted just after polls closed: “Reminder: If you’re waiting to vote in Florida, #StayInLine! As long as you were in line when polls closed, you can still vote.”
Voters reported hours-long lines throughout the day in Florida, where the Republican administration cut the number of early voting days to eight from 14.
About 12,000 voters in the Clearwater area of Florida received automated telephone calls on Tuesday telling them they had until the end of “tomorrow” to vote. Once officials realized the problem, they called voters to tell them the message had been sent out a day late and the election was really on Tuesday.
College students voting away from home also ran into problems in Florida after the new election law for the first time prohibited making address changes on the spot.
“Right now, it’s annoying me,” said Kristen Wiley, 20, a student from Boca Raton who said she had requested, but not received, an absentee ballot from Palm Beach County. She was waiting in line for a provisional ballot, knowing it would not count unless her eligibility is later verified.
Multiple problems were reported in New Jersey and New York, where Sandy crashed ashore eight days ago.
“There’s just one word to describe the experience in New Jersey, and that is a catastrophe,” said Barbara Arnwine, director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
She said that computer servers had crashed, voters were being asked for ID that was not required, some polling places opened late and multiple locations did not have ballots.
New Jersey extended the deadline for voters displaced by the storm to fax or email their ballots until Friday.
additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Ingram in Washington, Jane Sutton and Tom Brown in Miami, Barbara Liston in Orlando and Andrew Longstreth in New York; Editing by Ros Krasny, Marilyn W. Thompson and Paul Simao