In an election that bids to rival the photo finish of 2000, voters are choosing today between President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry after a slugfest campaign that intensified through the year.
There have been long lines at polling places, and officials predicted record turnout in the first wartime election in a generation. "This election is in the hands of the people, and I feel very comfortable about that," Bush said after voting near his ranch in Crawford, Texas, along with first lady Laura Bush and twin daughters Barbara and Jenna.
Kerry, who was to vote later in Boston, handed out information packets in the morning to volunteers in La Crosse, Wis., exhorting his supporters to "get the job done." "We're going to take America to a better place," the Massachusetts senator promised.
It was the first presidential election since the United States plunged into its epochal war on terrorism, and heavy crowds were reported at polling places in the East, the first precincts to open. Long lines snaked out the doors as voters waited, some in the rain, and brought chairs for expected long waits.
The prospect of unprecedented legal challenges hung over Election Day, each side sending thousands of lawyers into motion to monitor the flood of newly registered voters and mount hair-trigger challenges against any sign of irregularity.
By all signs, voters were engaged. Long lines were reported at precincts from Florida and North Carolina to West Virginia and Michigan. "We even had people waiting in line before we opened at 6:30 a.m.," said Wayne County clerk Robert Pasley in Wayne, W.Va. "In some places, there was more than a dozen people waiting, and that's heavy."
Rain was falling in parts of the Midwest as voters lined up. Brian Fravel, a 43-year-old welder who lives in Columbus, Ohio, said he had never before had to wait to vote. When he arrived at the Northland Church of Christ at 7:30 a.m., he found a long line of people and waited 45 minutes to cast a ballot. "I thought I was early enough to beat it," Fravel said.
The final preelection polls turned up tied--49-49 in one CNN-USA Today-Gallup survey, with Ralph Nader at 1%. Tight surveys in Florida and a variety of Midwestern states including Ohio deepened the mystery over who would collect the necessary 270 electoral votes.
In an eleventh-hour blow for Democrats in battleground Ohio, an appeals court in Cincinnati stayed lower court decisions and cleared the way for vote challengers to be present at polling places in the state Tuesday. Democrats had claimed Republicans were seeking to discourage minority voters by keeping party representatives out of polling stations. The decisions were quickly appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice John Paul Stevens declined to overturn the appeals court action in an order issued little more than an hour before the polls there opened.
Polls found not only a sizzling contest again this time but a sense among people that this election counted more than others in the recent past. In addition, untold millions took advantage of expanded opportunities to vote before Election Day in 32 states.