This week, American democracy let out a collective sigh of relief.
Young voters took part in record numbers, despite growing up during one of the most troubled eras of American voting. Some 1.2 million poll workers minded the details and, for the most part, avoided election-altering gaffes. In precincts where problems did pop up, some voters got the word out through amateur videos; others waited in lines in a silent testament that the day wasn't a pointless exercise.
In the end, exit polls found 88 percent of respondents felt confident in their voting device that day. And the widespread concerns about the legitimacy of recent elections didn't discourage more than 40 percent of registered voters from showing up – apparently, the highest midterm turnout in a generation. "Decision 2006" may be remembered as a confidence-restoring election.
"We've seen more change in the past six years than we've seen in the previous 200" in the technology of voting, says Paul DeGregorio, chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, charged with assisting federal reforms. "I think we're going to see more change, and certainly the introduction of more technology in this election process because people seem to like it and it works well."
The election was far from smooth, however. Among the glitches:
•Machine problems. Some didn't start up, others displayed the wrong ballot, and others, according to unverified allegations, registered votes for candidates whom voters had not picked.
•Poll worker gaffes. In several states, voters reported being asked for unnecessary identification. In Montana, a worker forgot to reset a counter, delaying the tally.
•Allegations of voter suppression. Democrats in New Mexico have charged that voters received calls that offered directions to the wrong polling place. In Virginia, the FBI is investigating similar complaints as well as an allegation that a resident was threatened with arrest if he voted.
But the consensus among election observers is that the problems – while still too numerous for comfort and difficult to track with some electronic voting technologies – appeared to be isolated and not systemic.
"In 2006, there were more problems overall, but they were largely minor," says Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan reform watchdog in Washington. "Lots of fender benders, no pileups."
The problems weren't surprising, he and others say, in a year that saw the largest rollout ever of electronic voting machines. On Tuesday, more than 4 in 5 voters used some kind of electronic ballot.
"In lots of jurisdictions, preparation kept them from having any major problems," says Mr. Chapin, who lauded Connecticut in particular for "obsessive" planning. "In the places where they did have problems, they just got lucky that they weren't in races that ended up being close."
Money also helped. This year, states spent the bulk of the $3.1 billion given out under the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Mr. DeGregorio says money went not just to equipment but to poll-worker recruitment and training as well as voter education.
The snags this year, he says, arose from inattention. "It shows that details matter in the conduct of elections [and] we can do a better job of helping to professionalize election administration in this country."
Intense scrutiny of the process has helped poll workers stay on their toes, say experts.
This year, a new initiative called "Video the Vote" enlisted amateurs to film poll irregularities. The idea: to bring attention to voting problems even in elections where the winning margin was large enough that they would normally receive little attention.
"There's so much focus on calling the winners and losers ... that we lose sight of whether the voter was a winner or loser," says Ian Inaba, one of the leaders of the project that has posted hundreds of interviews at videothevote.org. "You look at those lines in Denver and Missouri or listen to some of those voters in Maryland or even New Jersey – things were not OK [Tuesday]. There were a lot of frustrated people."
Mr. Inaba and political bloggers are using more democratic media models to widen engagement in politics. They may be among many reasons that more people are checking back into politics.
Overall turnout surged to more than 40 percent this year, its highest level in a midterm election since 1982, according to a preliminary analysis by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate.
Several states saw gains over 2002, including Ohio, Montana, and Missouri, according to the Associated Press.
Hotly contested races in those states might have fueled the increases.
"Polarization tends to be a mobilizing factor in getting out the vote," says Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, a voter-research institute at the University of Maryland.
The turnout of young people in this election was especially strong.
Voters aged 18 to 29 cast an estimated 10 million votes, or 13 percent of all ballots, up from 11 percent in 2002.
In one crucial election, the Senate race in Montana, young people made up 17 percent of the vote. The winning campaign of Democrat Jon Tester said it made "fairly aggressive" efforts to reach that demographic.
"There's a new generation of voters that will turn out ... if candidates target their vote. Young voters have left their mark on the 2006 election. It shows that they are a force," says Heather Smith of Young Voter Strategies, a nonpartisan organization in Washington aimed at increasing youth turnout.
Young people voted for Democrats by a wide margin: 22 percentage points, according to CNN's exit poll data. Many sought change on issues like Iraq, jobs, and education, says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.
"The turnout shows that young people have confidence in the voting system," says Mr. Levine. In general, the millennial generation has more positive attitudes toward government institutions than people might expect, he adds.
Ultimately, perceptions of progress in election reform may rest on the orderly resolution of the Senate race in Virginia.
News agencies have declared Democrat James Webb the winner, but at press time election workers had yet to finish canvassing votes and the incumbent, Sen. George Allen (R), had not conceded.
Any recount would not scrutinize individual ballots but merely recheck tabulations. This is partly due to the state's switch to paperless electronic machines, a system widely criticized for the lack of transparency in just such an event.