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Problems reported at polls vary from state to state

Voters in Connecticut, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Alabama and other states all encountered potentially serious problems casting ballots Tuesday.
Voting in the midterm elections on Nov. 4, 2014. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)
Voting in the midterm elections on Nov. 4, 2014.

HOUSTON — Voters in Connecticut, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Alabama and other states all encountered potentially serious problems casting ballots as Americans went to the polls Tuesday.

The issues included malfunctioning machines that caused long lines, problems with statewide voter registration systems, missing voter lists, and delays processing voter registration applications. Meanwhile, voter ID laws and other strict voting measures kept others from even attempting to make it to the polls.

The Election Protection Hotline, a phone line manned for voters to report problems, had received 18,498 calls by 8 p.m. ET, according to a spokesman for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which led the effort. 1,967 came from Florida, 1,876 from Texas, and 1,815 from Georgia.

In Florida, the campaign of Charlie Crist, the Democratic candidate for governor, filed a court motion late Tuesday afternoon -- which was ultimately denied -- asking to extend voting hours in Broward County from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. One polling site was offline for over an hour causing major delays, the campaign said.

To be sure, voting irregularities are a common occurrence and happen during every election. But snafus in states across the country are a reminder that voting can be hampered not only by the restrictive, statewide voting laws that have received national attention, but also by the more mundane yet serious administrative problems that continue to bedevil our voting system.

Wendy Weiser, the director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, said the problems underline the urgent need to fix the way Americans vote.  "We need to work to modernize our voting system, not to create new barriers," Weiser told msnbc.

RELATED: Texas sees surge of disenfranchised voters

Connecticut was among the hardest hit Tuesday, according to reports. Lawyers for Gov. Daniel Malloy asked a judge to keep Hartford polling places open for extended hours after a slew of issues kept voters from casting their ballots at at least four sites. One site had no monitors. At another 23 polling places, registration books did not arrive in time. 

At 5:45 p.m. ET, a clerk for the court told msnbc that the judge had extended polling hours until 8:30 p.m. ET at two of the Hartford locations that saw the worst problems, Bachelder School and United Methodist Church.

In Texas, where a strict voter ID law is in place for the first time in a major election, the state emailed counties Tuesday morning to inform them that the statewide voter registration system was down. According to Janice Evans, elections director for Brazoria County, it remained down at noon local time. That meant poll workers were unable to access information about a voter’s registration status, likely leading many voters to have to cast provisional ballots.

"If our Judges cannot find a voter in their pollbooks, they are advised to call Voter Registration," Evans said. "With the State TEAM System down, Voter Registration cannot look at all the voters in Brazoria County and try and find a person they may not be in the pollbooks. The judge will have to vote the voters provisionally which takes extra time."

A spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office said, "It's one less option for voters to find their polling place. It's now working intermittently.”

And Bexar County Elections Administrator Jackie Callanen said Tuesday afternoon that one voting machine malfunctioned, leaving the name of Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, off the ballot. Callanen had earlier told msnbc that reports of the problem were false.

And of course, a large but unknown number of voters will be disenfranchised by the ID law. Several Texans spoke to msnbc Monday about the massive bureaucratic hurdles they went through as they tried unsuccessfully to get ID.

But one Houston woman was allowed to vote a regular ballot, as an msnbc reporter looked on, despite presenting an an out-of-state driver's license as ID, which isn't allowed under the law. Her experience suggest the ID law is being applied haphazardly across the state, with some poll-workers unfamiliar with how to enforce it.

Here in Harris County, the state’s largest county, machines at several polling places weren’t working. At the West Gray site near downtown Houston, where only two machines were working for much of the morning, some voters said they waited an hour and a quarter to cast a ballot. Another nearby site was down entirely for the first hour of voting due to electrical problems. Maureen Haver, an election protection activist with Common Cause Texas, said voters who had to leave because of the delay weren’t offered the chance to cast a provisional ballot.

“We are already seeing evidence that new voting restrictions are creating problems at the polls. Voter ID and voter registration problems are the most visible so far," Weiser, from the Brennan Center, said. "We are also seeing problems with locating polling places and starting to see long lines.

PHOTO ESSAY: Issues that matter to new voters in North Carolina

Meanwhile in Georgia, thousands of voters were left in limbo and unsure whether they can cast a ballot because the secretary of state’s office failed to process approximately 40,000 applications in time. A voter registration group sued the state to force it to act, but the suit was dismissed last month.

Making the problem worse, the secretary of state’s website was not working for much of the morning, leaving voters unable to access information about their registration status and polling place. Election Protection, a group that monitors voting problems, said it had received reports that voters have not been able to reach their board of elections.

"This is completely unacceptable, especially in light of the unprocessed registrations in major counties and voter concerns about participating in this critical election,” said Lawyers' Committee President and Executive Director Barbara Arnwine. “The state of Georgia had a responsibility to ensure that their website and phone resources were operational and available to voters at all times, yet the website continues to have ongoing problems.”

And in North Carolina, which passed its own a restrictive voting law last year, the wrong voter rolls were sent to a polling site just down the street from Bennett College, a historically black college in Greensboro, poll monitors said. For a couple hours, monitors said the proper rolls hadn't arrived, so voters were allowed to vote but it's unclear if they were able to cast ballots or vote provisionally.

RELATED: Election could impact voting rights in 2016

In Boone, near Appalachian State University, poll monitors reported that some people were yelling at voters that they needed ID to vote. In fact, the state’s voter ID provision doesn't take effect until 2016. And according to local news reports, two precincts in Cumberland County received the wrong thumb drives for the voting machines that were sent.

There was also evidence of the problems caused by a provision of the state's voting law that bans out-of-precinct voting, which used to be allowed in North Carolina. A video posted by the Center for American Progress Action Fund shows black voters expressing confusion after being told they couldn't vote at the site they went to, despite having been able to do so in the past.

“Probably my guess is, eight out of 10 people are at the wrong precinct,” Art Lieberman, a voter protection volunteer stationed at Chavis Community Center, told ThinkProgress

African-American voters are crucial to Democratic chances in close Senate races in Georgia and North Carolina.

Voter ID laws, and not just Texas's, caused problems too. An Alabama county notified a 92-year old woman Monday that her absentee ballot wouldn't count because her public housing ID isn't allowed under the law, according to Deuel Ross, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The woman has been voting at least since the 1960's, her daughter told Ross.

The NAACP argues such IDs should be allowed because housing officers are acting as federal agents. The law says any photo ID issued by the state or the U.S. is acceptable. But a lawyer for the Alabama secretary of state's office told Ross in an email Monday that it's the state's policy not to accept public housing IDs.

RELATED: An Election Day tilt toward Republicans

Alabama's ID law has largely escaped national scrutiny, but the state has said somewhere between 10 and 20% of voters don't have the identification needed to vote.

"It's really disappointing to be encountering voters who are ready and able to vote. who are being turned away because they lack voter ID, when they've voted in the past with a public housing ID," Ross said.

In response, CAP sent a letter Tuesday to Alabama Secretary of state James R. Bennett urging him to ensure voters have access to the polls.

And a number of election judges -- the partisan officials who oversee voting in Illinois -- received misleading automated calls in the days leading up to the election, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Some judges said they got calls falsely telling them they needed more training before Election Day. The state is hosting a competitive governor's race.

Jo Thomas, 71, told msnbc that when she went to vote at her polling place in Florissant, Missouri, not far from Ferguson, she was told by a poll worker that she needed to show a photo ID. In fact, Missouri has no photo ID law, despite Republican efforts to pass one there.

Thomas, who is African-American, said after she retrieved her driver's license form her car, she was able to vote without a problem. But she said others might not have been as lucky if the poll worker made the same demand. "If she did it to me, she probably did it so someone else," Thomas said.

The Virginia Republican Party wrote to state election administrators Tuesday saying poll-watchers had flagged malfunctioning voting machines in several precincts. In a video posted online by the Weekly Standard magazine, a machine appeared to turn a vote for Rep. Scott Rigell, a Republican, into a vote for his Democratic challenger.

"These technical difficulties are being addressed by both localities’ teams of voting equipment technicians in conjunction with AccuVote vendors," the Virginia Board of Elections said in a statement. "Localities have indicated that voting machines exhibiting any issues are immediately taken out of service until they can be checked by a technician. Both localities have sufficient voting machines at each precinct for voting to continue without delay."

After some voters waited for as long as 10 hours to cast a ballot in Florida in 2012, President Obama appointed a bipartisan panel of experts to suggest fixes to the voting system. Among their recommendations: online voter registration; expanded early voting; better voting technology; and improving the accuracy of the voting rolls. But a recent report found many states hadn’t acted on those ideas.

Additional reporting by Deborah Strauss, Trymaine Lee and Suzy Khimm.