HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP)—Voter turnout was strong on Tuesday amid confusion at polling places over voter identification rules in Pennsylvania, which plays a key role in determining whether Republicans or Democrats control the White House and the U.S. Senate.
Democrats had won the past five presidential elections in the state, including President Barack Obama’s win four years ago, but a strong, late push by Republicans raised the level of drama. Pennsylvania has 20 electoral votes, the fifth-most of any state.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney staged an aggressive, last-minute effort to erode Obama’s support. Romney capped that 11th-hour sprint with an Election Day visit to Pittsburgh, his second visit in three days to Pennsylvania in what the Obama campaign calls a desperation move as Romney struggles in another key battleground state, Ohio.
Pennsylvania figures to be closely watched nationally. It is a key stepping stone to the presidency for Democrats, since no Democrat has won the White House without Pennsylvania in 64 years.
Polls close at 8 p.m. County election officials around the state expected turnout to be around 70 percent of Pennsylvania’s nearly 8.5 million voters, and lines were long.
Pennsylvanians will also decide contests for U.S. Senate, 18 congressional seats, state attorney general, state treasurer, state auditor general and most state legislative seats.
Voters went to the polls with the economy on their minds. In interviews, six in 10 called the economy their top issue, far outpacing the two in 10 citing health care or one in eight calling the deficit their top concern.
They were split between wanting a candidate who shared their values or had a vision for the future—about three in 10 called each the top candidate quality. Slightly fewer prioritized a strong leader or someone who cares about people like them—about one in five said each was most important.
One in five voters said they are better off today than they were four years ago, and four in 10 said the economy itself was improving. Still, a third of voters said it was getting worse and one in five called the economy bad and stagnant.
In the old steel town of Braddock about 10 miles east of Pittsburgh, Mayor John Fetterman said residents of the predominantly black community waited in lines “around the block,” easily matching the enthusiasm to vote that he saw in 2008.
Heavily Latino wards in north Philadelphia were seeing unexpectedly high numbers of voters, including first-time voters, said Miguel Concepcion of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Congress of Puerto Rican Rights.
“One had 300 by 12 noon,” Concepcion said. “Traditionally, if they see 200, that’s a lot.”
State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, said election workers in his district are telling him turnout is either extremely high or a record.
Last month, a state judge blocked a new Republican-sponsored law requiring Pennsylvania voters to show photo ID. As a result of the judge’s ruling, polling place workers must still ask voters for a photo ID, but no one is required to produce one. A state law still requires first-time voters to show ID, but non-photo forms are acceptable, including a bank statement or a utility bill.
But reports were rife of election workers nonetheless demanding photo ID from voters or outdated literature, such as posters in polling places saying photo ID is required.
In addition, election watchdogs, including the Philadelphia-based Committee of Seventy, were worrying over reports of people in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh finding that their names were not on registration books and having to vote by provisional ballots.
Poll watchers reported other problems around the state in the first few hours of voting, including Republican inspectors being denied access to polling places in Philadelphia.
In 2008, nearly 68 percent of more than 8.7 million registered voters, or 6 million people, cast a ballot. The odds favor Democrats in statewide races: Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of four-to-three.
Early voters at one polling place in strongly Democratic Philadelphia favored Obama.
Franco Montalto, a registered independent, said he voted for Obama again, citing his “sober, balanced approach to making decisions.”
Montalto, 39, an environmental engineer, said he had felt frustration over the last four years — he said Obama could have pushed for a more generous stimulus package to aid the economic recovery, for example — but considers Republicans “dangerous.”
Outside a volunteer a volunteer fire station in rural Lamar in Clinton County, auto parts store employee Frank Fredrick said he didn’t like where the country was headed under Obama and gave Romney his vote.
“He’s a take-charge guy. He impresses me because he can fix things,” Fredrick, 66, said.
At a polling place in the East Shore Baptist Church in suburban Harrisburg, retired police officer Bill Demmy, 50, a registered Republican, said Romney can do a better job of asserting the United States around the world and of improving the economy.
“Just all around, we’re in bad shape,” Demmy said.
School teacher Pamela McCann, a Democrat, voted for Obama, like she did in 2008. A key issue for McCann, 46, is the president’s signature health care law, and she said Obama deserves another term because four years wasn’t enough to carry out his vision.
“He hasn’t gotten the time to change the U.S. in the way he wanted to,” McCann said.
Associated Press writers Patrick Walters in Philadelphia and Genaro C. Armas in Lamar contributed to this report.