A contentious presidential race drove heavy turnout at the polls Tuesday, causing long lines at some polling places and periodic glitches with voting machines and routines.
As of late Tuesday night, almost 1.9 million ballots had been tallied, with 60 of 67 counties having reported their results, according to the Alabama Secretary of State’s website. But the state had slightly higher turnout in 2008 and 2012. Almost 2.1 million people voted in each of those years.
A surge in voter registration teased election officials with the prospect of record voter turnout, but it was not to be.
Still, turnout was heavy Tuesday, and people from across the state reported having to stand in line for three hours or more to cast their ballots.
Long line after closing at Hunter Street
Owen Roberts, poll official at Hunter Street Baptist Church in Hoover, one of Jefferson County’s largest polling places, said about 4,500 ballots had been cast there as of 7:45 p.m.
“This is the heaviest turnout I’ve seen in 20 years of working the polls,” Roberts said.
At 7 p.m., Roberts estimated that about 1,000 people were still waiting to vote.
“We have a (Jefferson County) Sheriff’s deputy standing at the end of the line back there and before he got here (Jefferson County Probate) Judge Alan King and (Jefferson County Probate) Judge Elizabeth North stood at the end of the line to let people know the polls closed at 7,” Roberts said.
Ethelene Clemmons said at 7:45 p.m. that she had been standing in line to vote at Hunter Street Baptist for more than three hours.
“I was surprised when I pulled into the parking lot and saw the line of people waiting to vote,” Clemmons said.
Despite the long wait, Clemmons said she didn’t get frustrated and didn’t see any other voters getting too frustrated with the long wait.
“If you want to cast your vote, what are you going to do but stand in line?” she said. “But I did notice that names that started with M got through faster, so I might have to change my last name before the next election.”
Joel Hall said he waited in line for about two hours at Hunter Street Baptist before he could cast his vote.
“I kind of expected to wait for a while so I didn’t get frustrated in line,” he said. “Everybody seemed pretty calm.”
Across town at Legion Field in Birmingham, about 50 people still were waiting in line to vote about half an hour before the polls closed. A poll official there said voting had been steady all day, with an average of about 50 people in line at any one time.
Over at Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church in Bessemer, about 1,600 votes had been cast by 8:30 a.m. this morning. The heavy voting volume remained steady throughout the day, according to poll official Gary Roberson.
“I worked the election here four years ago and today’s turnout was a lot more than that,” he said.
Roberson said that, for the most part, voters stayed calm while waiting in the long lines at the Bessemer polling place.
“There was some frustration, though, because people got aggravated that our machines got overwhelmed a couple of times,” he said.
Despite widespread fears of election fraud and voter intimidation across the country, voting Tuesday was accomplished largely without serious incident.
BirminghamWatch partnered with ProPublica in its Electionland project, which set out to cover access to the ballot and problems that prevent people from exercising their right to vote.
ProPublica and its partners checked out complaints from voters throughout the day. They found some equipment malfunctions in several states along with isolated voter ID issues, but nothing widespread or systemic. There was a rash of reports about voter intimidation in Pennsylvania, but few could be verified.
‘Election Officials Remarkably Well-prepared’
“Despite expectations this would be an unusual election, this election largely played out as previous presidential elections,” David Becker, executive director of The Center for Election Innovation & Research, said in the ProPublica blog. “Sporadic problems here and there, but election officials were remarkably well-prepared and this resulted in a largely smooth Election Day.”
The experience in Alabama was much the same. Other than long lines, the most frequent complaint seemed to be about malfunctioning vote-counting machines. Voters at several polling places were concerned because they had to leave their ballot uncounted. Poll officials said they were placed in locked boxes until the machines were fixed, then the ballots were fed into the machines to count the votes.
Roberson said his polling place at Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church had four voting machines, and each of them was down at some point during the day.
Roberson said the machines could process only 1,500 ballots at a time before they had to be cleared out and reset.
“That’s 3,000 pages because we have a two-page ballot, so all four of our machines had to be reset at different times throughout the day,” Roberson said. “That slowed things down and caused some frustration with the people in line.”
There also were complaints from people who were registered voters but whose names were not on voter lists at the polls. But those complaints were isolated and spread across the state.
One of the bigger voter glitches was discovered before election day even dawned. Election officials in Shelby County received 122 applications for absentee ballots in the mail Monday. But the deadline for receiving those applications was the previous Thursday, and the applications were dated Oct. 31.
Shelby County Circuit Court Clerk Mary Harris said she had a similar problem during the primary with mailed absentee ballots that had been delivered after the deadline.
“They mailed them in a sufficient amount of time that I should have been able to mail them a ballot,” she lamented. “I pitched a fit after the primary, hoping there would be some changes made, knowing there was going to be a huge turnout for this election. I had hopes that if they were having trouble with mail delivery, they would call in extra workers or something, whatever they had to do.”
Harris alerted the Secretary of State’s Office of the situation. The spokesman for Secretary of State John Merrill said legislation to rectify the problem will be discussed after the first the year. And Merrill tweeted that he would be in favor of changing the law, which means absentee ballots would have to be in sooner.
But that won’t help the people who tried to get an absentee ballot to vote Tuesday. Harris spent the day Monday calling to alert those people that their absentee ballots were not in the mail and that they must, if possible, go to their regular polling place to cast their ballots. But she doesn’t know how many were able to do that.
“You’re going the extra mile because you want people to have the ability to vote,” said Harris, who said she has worked 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week for the past two months. “When something like this happens, it’s just very frustrating for me.”
Keysha Drexel and Solomon Crenshaw Jr. contributed to this report.