It was expected to be the biggest one-day display of political activism in the country since the anti-war protests of the late 1960s. But on this Election Day, with voters around the country having engaged in early voting at record levels, the turnout at polling places across the Bay Area brought to mind a variation on a popular '60s slogan: What if they gave a historic election and nobody came?
Well, not nobody. But at one polling place after another, election workers reported few instances of the long lines that the massive "turnout" was supposed to produce. To be sure, the final vote tally was still expected to swell to historic levels, but as the day progressed, it appeared voters were taking advantage of the electoral earlybird special. With only a few problems reported locally — most of them dealt with quickly — voters went about their business briskly Tuesday.
"I can't believe how dead it is," said Diane Clewett, 69, a San Jose poll worker. "It was a zoo the last four days. Maybe everyone has voted already."
She said about 975 people voted Friday at the Registrar's Office, 1,345 on Saturday and more than 1,800 on Sunday. Even at noon, the lines were still calm. Waits were five minutes or less. Far more voters were simply arriving to drop off their mail-in ballots.
Long lines and some glitches did emerge at a few locations, but there were no meltdowns, and nothing happened that significantly impeded Americans from casting a vote. Vandals filled the door locks of two polling places in Santa Cruz with glue, there were paper jams in some Virginia polling places, and a power outage forced some voters outside in Los Angeles.
From San Jose to Oakland, poll workers were greeted during the early hours of balloting by a steady but growing stream of voters. At times, however, there were longer lines stretched in front of Starbucks stores — where a free cup of coffee was given to anyone identifying him or herself as a voter — than at nearby polling places.
Dorrie Teodoro, 53, of San Jose, was near tears after casting her vote for Barack Obama at the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voter's office on Berger Drive first thing in the morning.
"I've just been overwhelmed since last night," she said. "I have a granddaughter who will be born this year and I can't wait to tell her about this. I'm going to be happy all day long."
Tame voting lines in San Jose, more frenzy in Oakland
Bracing for huge turnout in the East Bay, Alameda County Deputy Registrar of Voters Cynthia Cornejo said there were no early morning glitches. At one precinct at a fire station on 66th Avenue in Oakland, precinct worker Gus Dobbins, 77, said he had never seen such a busy election morning.
"It's never been like this," Dobbins said.
Despite the high turnout, one woman walking by the precinct stopped to ask what was happening. That didn't sit well with Dobbins.
"Martin Luther King marched and demonstrated and lost his life for this and you tell me you don't know what this is about," he said. "This is historic. We're going to tell our children and our grandchildren about this, to have a black man maybe become president. It will heal a lot of wounds," Dobbins said.
The lines were surprisingly tame in San Jose at the registrar's office.
"Things are going very smoothly," said Peggy Hsiung, a poll worker from Los Altos, who expected lines to build at lunchtime. "Voters are very happy. We have a system here."
Malfunctions in Contra Costa County and vandals Santa Cruz
There were a few reported problems with equipment in Contra Costa County. And in Santa Cruz, Police Capt. Steve Clark said overnight vandals filled the door locks of two polling places with glue, and tagged the Anderson Apartments and the Santa Cruz Community Church with "obscene language denouncing both candidates." The graffiti included the letter "A" with a circle around it; the symbol used by anarchists. Voting at these places were delayed an hour. In addition, two campaign offices in Santa Cruz, the Grass Roots Campaign Office and the Democratic Campaign Headquarters, had broken windows this morning.
Preparation in Santa Clara County paid off
But in Santa Clara County, there was no criminal activity reported, although registrar spokeswoman Elma Rosas said she heard of some vague complaints of "electioneering,'' meaning that people were lobbying for their side too close to a polling station.
Election officials, predicting that the turnout may reach levels not seen since 1968, printed extra ballots to avoid the shortages, and a public service campaign urged residents to vote early by mail or at the San Jose elections office. More than 40 percent of eligible voters had already voted before Election Day countywide.
"Today, it's been a small group of people, but constant,'' Rosas said.
Pressure to get it right grew prior to Election Day, with more than 100,000 new voters registering in the nine months between the February primary and Tuesday's election. In the days leading up to the election, hundreds of people per day streamed into the county's Berger Drive elections office to vote, some waiting in line for more than an hour.
Elsewhere in the country, waits sometimes lasted hours, and lines stretched for half a mile.
"Well, I think I feel somehow strong and energized to stand here even without food and water," said Ahmed Bowling of Alexandria, Va., who faced a very long wait. "What matters is to cast my vote."
Some voting advocates worried that the nation's crazy quilt of election systems could stagger later in the day, when people getting off work hit the polls.
"We have a system that wasn't ready for huge turnout," said Tova Wang of the government watchdog group Common Cause. "People have to wait for hours. Some people can do that. Some people can't. This is not the way to run a democracy."
Despite overall good marks, individuals locally had gripes. The Rev. Ben Daniel, pastor of the Foothill Presbyterian Church in East San Jose, said he was voting at a school in the Mayfair district this morning when a Spanish-speaking citizen was confused about how to vote provisionally.
"No one working the polls spoke Spanish,'' he said. "That seems like something of an oversight to me.''
Daniel said that a poll worker called elections headquarters to request a translator to come down, but the pastor stepped up to help on site.
Jim Carlson, 61, of San Jose cited a potentially huge problem, based on the size of the sample ballot voters are sent at home, and the size of the real ballot at the polling station. The sample ballots, which many people fill out at home to use as a "cheat sheet" on Election Day, are smaller than the official ballots. So, when Carlson was trying to line up his forms, he realized that he couldn't just copy his selections from one form to the other very easily.
"I am worried that other people will end up making the wrong choices," Carlson said. "Whoever printed different size ballots was pretty crazy.''
Ballots however, always come in different sizes. Sample ballots are 81/2 -by-11 inches, and election ballots are 11-by-17 inches. Rosas said that voters just need to be careful.
Others, like Vickie Williams, 52, of San Jose, voted at Ida Jew Elementary School on Flint Avenue, only to be told that election workers had no record of her voting since 2000, even though she had voted in the primary election. So, Williams wanted to know, where did that primary election vote go? And will her vote be recorded today?
"This is what discourages people from voting,'' she said.
Kay Gutknecht, 58, who works at Stanford Hospital, said she found her poll workers at Lenzen Avenue in San Jose to be generally "incompetent,'' giving her conflicting answers on whether she could vote provisionally and whether she had to sign a roster. She did her own research and demanded a call to election headquarters to sort things out.
"Had I not been someone who reads everything, my vote wouldn't have been counted,'' she said.
Rosas acknowledged that provisional ballots take more research and more time to count and verify. But they are counted, she promised, saying that by law, election officials have 28 days to certify an election.
Malfunctions in Antioch
At a polling station in the Hillcrest Vista Clubhouse in Antioch the ballot scanner malfunctioned, bending and slightly chewing some of the forms, within a half hour after polls opened. Officials turned it off around 7:30 a.m. and began using the auxiliary box to collect ballots.
"People are mad, they want to make sure it is valid," Plotnick said. "Some of them are leery, but I tried to make them feel comfortable and tell them that their vote will count."
At a separate polling spot in Antioch, a polling inspector failed to show up at the Commons at Dallas Ranch, an assisted-living facility serving as a polling station. Voters there will have to cast provisional ballots.
Poll workers at the Richmond Senior Center overcame an early morning setback when they gained access to the building just minutes before the 7 a.m. opening. However, the voting roster was misplaced, so voters who arrived within the first hour of voting had to cast provisional ballots.
In Discovery Bay, word had circulating on news wires that only 50 sample ballots were available for all voting were available in three of the precincts there. But Contra Costa County Clerk/Recorder Steve Weir said that was "patently untrue."
Weir said that a poll inspector for a precinct at Discovery Bay Elementary School phoned both an attorney for the Republican Party and Assemblyman Guy Houston's office complaining that she had only 50 sample ballots. But those sample ballots were designed as a backup to the 500 ballots provided for that precinct, totaling 120 percent of the calculated maximum turnout.
Weir said the inspector will be relieved of her duties.
At one precinct in Alameda County, first-time voter Brian Collor, 27, was eager to cast his ballot.
. "I was in trouble for a lot of years, Collor said. "I got out of trouble and I thought it was time to do something good." Collor, who has three children, ages 2, 8 and 9, said he felt it was important to vote for his children's future. He voted for Obama.
"There's a lot of way out stuff going on in the country," he said. "Hopefully everything will go right and we'll get it fixed up."
At a polling place on Park Avenue at East 20th Street in Oakland, lines were also steady and voters were enthusiastic about the potential for change. "There's so much going on in the economy," a voter, Louise Thompson said. "I'm unemployed and I'm hoping Obama will bring change."
Long lines in San Francisco
In San Francisco, new U.S. citizen John Gillham, 43, voted for the first time at the Third Baptist Church, near Alamo Square, where there was about a 15-minute wait to cast votes.
He was excited to be part of a historic process and vote for the country's first African-American presidential candidate.
John McAndrews, 38, voted against Proposition 8, the state initiative that would ban gay marriage.
"Everybody's free to love who they want. It shouldn't matter," he said while voting at the San Francisco church.
Power out in L.A.; glitches nationally
In Los Angeles, two area polling locations were moved outside because of apparent rain-caused power outages that put scattered communities into darkness before dawn. The Department of Water and Power says the rain stopped and polling locations at the Tom Bradley Youth and Family Center southwest of downtown and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in South Los Angeles moved outdoors.
Nationally, problems surfaced in several areas as people turned out in droves along the Eastern Seaboard and in mid-Atlantic states.
Voters needed to use paper ballots because of problems with electronic voting machines in some New Jersey precincts. And in New York, Board of Elections spokeswoman Valerie Vazquez-Rivera said many people began lining up as early as 4 a.m. at some polling places to avoid long lines, leading to erroneous reports that some sites were not opening on time.
Poll worker John Ritch in Chappaqua, N.Y., said: "By 7:30 this morning, we had as many as we had at noon in 2004."
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Ed Rendell urged voters to "hang in there." More than 160 people were lined up to vote by the time polls opened at First Presbyterian Church in Allentown. "I could stay an hour and a half at the front end or three hours at the back end," joked Ronald Marshall, a black Democrat.
In several counties surrounding Virginia's capital city of Richmond, voters and elections officials reported paper jams on some machines and balky touch-screen machines in some localities had local registrars considering paper ballots.
At one precinct in Richmond, Va., hundreds of people encircled a branch library by 6 a.m., the scheduled opening of the polls. But the line grew for another 25 minutes before the poll workers opened the doors. They said the librarian who had a key to the polling place had overslept. Despite the delay under a steady drizzle, voters cheered as the doors opened at 6:25 a.m.
In Ohio, a state which has had voting problems in the past, Franklin County Board of Elections spokesman Ben Piscitelli said officials again were dealing with typical glitches, like jammed backup paper tapes on voting machines.
"We're taking care of things like that," Piscitelli said. "But there's nothing major or systemic."
Mercury News staff writers Karen de Sá, Gary Richards, Karen Borchers, Gary Reyes contributed to this report. The Associated Press and Bay Area News Group reporters Angela Hill and William Brand also contributed to this report.