CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Polls are open across Iowa after the electoral buildup that started long before and grew in intensity after the state's January caucuses. The polls were scheduled to open at 7 a.m. Tuesday and remain open until 9 p.m.
It's a high-stakes election for many candidates, including the two at the top of their party's tickets: President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and Republican Mitt Romney.
Iowans also are deciding who will represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives, which party will control the state Senate and whether to retain an Iowa Supreme Court justice who supported gay marriage.
Election Official: 68,000 Absentees Not Submitted
A spokesman for the Iowa secretary of state's office says about 670,000 people voted early, but roughly 68,000 absentee ballots requested by voters hadn't been turned in by Monday night.
Spokesman Chad Olsen says the number of absentee ballots not submitted sounds like a big number, but the percentage not returned is typical of past elections. Olsen calls it "nothing new."
He says Iowa was setting a record for early voting, with up to 45 percent of people voting outside the normal polling place.
People with absentee ballots could mail them up until Monday. Such ballots won't be counted if mailed today, but they can drop off ballots off in person.
Minor Problems Reported
Balky machines that threatened to disrupt voting at a Dubuque church have been repaired.
The Dubuque Telegraph-Herald reports that the machines broke down soon after the Dubuque County polling station opened at 7 a.m. Tuesday at St. Columbkille Catholic Church.
Voters who couldn't wait for the repairs filled out their ballots by hand and gave them to poll workers.
The newspaper says the repairs were completed and the machines were back in operation by around 7:45 a.m.
Spokesman Chad Olsen for the Iowa Secretary of State's Office also reported that Story County had problems with electronic poll books that are used to check in voters. He says poll workers reverted to paper copies, so voting delays were minimized.
The county auditor says a few voters in Pottawattamie County on Iowa's western border are upset about being late for work after problems at voting precincts.
Marilyn Jo Drake says glitches happened Tuesday morning at about 10 of the 40 precincts, causing a wait in at least two locations.
Drake says delays of 15 to 20 minutes caused "a little bit of anger in a couple of precincts.
She blamed the problem on identification labels that allow voters to confirm their information without having to handprint it on rosters. Some of the labels got put into the wrong "port" of the voting machines.
Drake says "we had some workers panic" but fixed the problem as quickly as they could.
The problem didn't affect counting of ballots.
The Race for the White House
President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney now yield center stage to voters Tuesday for an Election Day choice that will frame the contours of government and the nation for years to come.
After a grinding presidential campaign that packed suspense to the finish, Americans head into polling places in sleepy hollows, bustling cities and superstorm-ravaged beach towns deeply divided. All sides are awaiting, in particular, a verdict from the nine battleground states whose votes will determine which man can piece together the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.
Obama has more options for getting there. So Romney decided to make a late dash to Cleveland and Pittsburgh on Tuesday while running mate Paul Ryan threw in stops in Cleveland and Richmond, Va. Obama opted to make a dozen radio and satellite TV interviews from his hometown of Chicago to keep his closing arguments fresh in voters' minds.
Both sides cast the Election Day choice as one with far-reaching repercussions for a nation still recovering from the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression and at odds over how big a role government should play in solving the country's problems.
If past elections are any guide, a small but significant percentage of voters won't decide which presidential candidate they're voting for until Tuesday. Four percent of voters reported making up their minds on Election Day in 2008, and the figure was 5 percent four years earlier, according to exit polls.
By contrast, Election Day came early for more than a third of Americans, who chose to cast ballots days or even weeks in advance.
An estimated 46 million ballots, or 35 percent of the 133 million expected to be cast, were projected to be early ballots, according to Michael McDonald, an early voting expert at George Mason University who tallies voting statistics for the United States Elections Project. None of those ballots were being counted until Tuesday.
Obama's final campaign rally, Monday night in Des Moines, Iowa, was filled with nostalgia. A single tear streamed down Obama's face during his remarks, though it was hard to tell whether it was from emotion or the bitter cold.
Team Obama's closing lineup included Bruce Springsteen, rapper Jay-Z, singers Mariah Carey, Ricky Martin and John Mellencamp, the NBA's Derek Fisher and actors Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Rock. Springsteen, who hitched a ride aboard Air Force One for part of the day, even composed an anthem for the president, rhyming "Obama" with "pajamas."
Obama, making his last run for office at the still-young age of 51, was tickled to have Springsteen along as his traveling campaign, telling the crowd in Madison, "I get to fly around with him on the last day that I will ever campaign so that's not a bad way to end things."
Team Romney's closing events offered a slimmer celebrity quotient, including Kid Rock and country rock performers The Marshall Tucker Band. But the GOP nominee didn't seem to mind.
After a warm welcome at a rally in Fairfax, Va., Romney, 65, told cheering supporters: "I'm looking around to see if we have the Beatles here or something to have brought you. But it looks like you came just for the campaign and I appreciate it."
The forecast for Election Day promised dry weather for much of the country, with rain expected in two battlegrounds, Florida and Wisconsin. But the closing days of the campaign played out against ongoing recovery efforts after Superstorm Sandy. Election officials in New York and New Jersey were scrambling to marshal generators, move voting locations, shuttle storm victims to polling places and take other steps to ensure everyone who wanted to vote could do so.
Obama, who voted 12 days early, was sure to observe his Election Day ritual of playing pickup basketball with friends and close advisers. The one time he skipped the tradition, he lost the New Hampshire primary in 2008.
"We won't make that mistake again," said senior adviser Robert Gibbs.
Romney was voting at a community center near his home in Belmont, Mass., before his sprint to Ohio and Pennsylvania. His campaign released a gauzy 5-minute Election Day web video called "The Moment" replaying key events from the campaign, with Romney assuring voters, "The future is better than the past."
Iowa's Four Congressional Races
In a bid to become the state's first female U.S. House member, former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack moved to Ames to try to unseat outspoken Republican Rep. Steve King in the reconfigured 4th District.
Nine-term Republican Rep. Tom Latham also relocated, settling in the Des Moines suburb of Clive to run against eight-term Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell a bitter race that's likely to end one of their long-running political careers.
Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack moved 20 miles south to Iowa City to run in a new district that includes Davenport, where he faced an upset bid from corporate lawyer John Archer. And Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley of Waterloo again tried to fight off Ben Lange, the same small-town lawyer who nearly defeated him in 2010.
While Republicans were favorites to retain their House majority, Iowa's races were seen as a bellwether for Democrats' gains or losses.
The 4th District race in mostly rural northwestern Iowa looks to be one of the tightest races this year, pitting Vilsack, wife of U.S. Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, against the outspoken King.
Elected to Congress in 2002, King has endeared himself to conservatives for being quick to defend their causes on the House floor and national television. But in the process, he has made many remarks on everything from President Barack Obama to illegal immigrants that have been criticized as insensitive, inaccurate or outrageous.
King, 63, had never faced a serious challenge in the heavily Republican area, but the post-census addition of Ames made the district less conservative.
Vilsack, a 62-year-old former teacher and journalist from Mount Pleasant, moved to Ames last year and cast herself as a moderate who would focus on improving the economies of small towns. In one radio debate, she called King a bully and "an embarrassment to the people of Iowa."
King tried to use his bluntness to his advantage, painting himself as a "straight-talker." His campaign was boosted by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who recorded radio ads calling him "a unique and colorful public servant" and a leading opponent of Obama's health care law.
The intense King-Vilsack race didn't quite match the nastiness that surfaced between Latham and Boswell in the 3rd Congressional district, which stretches from Des Moines to southwest Iowa.
Boswell accused Latham of an "insider deal" because the Latham family's bank accepted a $2.4 million loan from the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program, the bank bailout that Latham voted against in 2008. Latham denied any involvement in the bank's decision, and noted that Boswell voted for the bailout.
Boswell, 78, went on the defensive after Des Moines liberal activist Ed Fallon claimed that Boswell, through intermediaries, offered him an $80,000 per-year job in his office if he wouldn't run in a 2008 Democratic primary. Boswell denied the allegation and sued Fallon, accusing him of defamation.
Latham, 64, said the personal attacks made the race "a different campaign than most that I've been a part of."
In the 2nd Congressional district that covers southeastern Iowa, an attack ad aired by three-term representative Loebsack, 59, shook up an otherwise predictable race. The ad accused Archer, a John Deere attorney, of being involved in the company's decision to ship jobs to Mexico in the 1990s but that was before Archer worked there. Archer, 40, accused Loebsack of unfairly criticizing John Deere, one of the region's biggest employers.
In northeastern Iowa, Braley was trying to hold off challenger Lange, a 33-year-old Independence lawyer, who was just 4,200 votes short of upsetting Braley in 2010.
Braley, 55, promoted himself as a champion of veterans and the middle class who's working to improve the economy. Lange attacked Braley for voting for the health care law, which he claimed included a $716 billion cut to Medicare that is "endangering Iowa seniors."
Judicial Retention Vote
Voters were deciding Tuesday whether to keep Justice David Wiggins on the Iowa Supreme Court or throw him out of office for joining the landmark 2009 decision that legalized gay marriage.
Social conservatives angered by that ruling were hoping to oust Wiggins. In an unprecedented campaign two years ago, they helped defeat three of his colleagues.
Liberal groups and trial lawyers were trying to keep Wiggins on the bench. State Supreme Court justices must face voters the first year after they are appointed and then every eight years. Justices must receive a simple majority vote to stay in office.
The vote on Wiggins' retention is considered a barometer for the country's changing views on gay marriage and a flashpoint in the debate over the role of courts in American life.
Wiggins joined six colleagues in unanimously declaring a state law banning gay marriage violated the equal-protection clause of Iowa's constitution, making Iowa the first Midwestern state to legalize gay marriage. Thousands of gay couples have wed in the state.
The backlash from conservatives, both in Iowa and nationwide, was fierce. Groups such as the National Organization for Marriage spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaign against Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices David Baker and Michael Streit in 2010, and about 55 percent of Iowa voters agreed to remove them from office.
Conservatives ran a similar campaign this year calling for Wiggins' ouster during his retention vote, and the Iowa Republican Party also joined the effort.
Wiggins may benefit from increasing support for gay marriage in Iowa and a more organized pro-retention effort from groups such as the Iowa State Bar Association, which was urging voters to keep politics out of the judicial branch.
Another factor in Wiggins' retention campaign was that he received a satisfactory but relatively poor performance review from attorneys. A Bar Association survey found that 63 percent of lawyers believed he should be retained, far lower than the other three newly appointed justices on the ballot, and gave him middling marks for his temperament and demeanor.
Wiggins was appointed in 2003 by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack. If he is not retained for another eight-year term, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad will appoint a replacement next year from a slate of finalists chosen by a judicial nominating commission.
Wiggins honored Iowa's long tradition in which justices do not raise money or actively campaign. "I want to keep my job, believe me, but I will not jeopardize the integrity of the Iowa Supreme Court in the process," he wrote in The Des Moines Register.
The three remaining justices who joined the 2009 ruling will face voters in future elections.
Battle for Control of the Iowa Senate
If Iowa Republicans pick up just two state Senate seats in Tuesday's election, they would have nearly complete control of state government for the first time in nearly 16 years, giving them the ability to push ahead with an ambitious agenda of tax cuts, education changes and restrictions on gay marriage and abortion.
The risk of Democrats losing their tenuous hold on the Iowa Senate has raised the stakes of legislative races in an election year where presidential politics have largely dominated the political landscape in this battleground state.
Democrats currently hold 26 seats in the 50-member Senate. Republicans won a 20-seat majority in the House in 2010, and most think it is unlikely Democrats can gain a majority in the 100-member chamber in this election. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad isn't up for re-election until 2014.
GOP leaders said if they gain control of both chambers for the first time since 1997, they will pass legislation dealing with hot-button social issues, but mostly emphasize jobs and the economy.
Iowans Ready to See Ads Come to An End
Politicians and activists agree: There is lots of interest in the election, but many Iowa voters will be relieved when the campaigns are history.
The campaign ads started months before the state's January 2012 presidential caucus, and never stopped.
"People talk all the time about how they basically mute their TV or shut it off," said Republican Rep. Tom Latham, who is locked in a heated campaign for Iowa's 3rd Congressional District with Democratic incumbent Leonard Boswell.
Campaign volunteers have experienced voter fatigue, too.
"People are going to be glad when we forget their names and forget where their houses are," said Caroline Koppes, an Obama campaign volunteer in Dubuque. "They're tired of it."