In a country where the last presidential election hinged in part on "hanging chads" -- and in a state that many thought would earn the title "the new Florida" -- the difficulty Jat Rhodes faced Tuesday wasn't that big a deal.
He came to a polling place in a red brick building on a hillside overlooking this decaying small city, not knowing whether this was where he ought to cast his first ballot ever.
No problem. Karen Spencer, a poll-watching volunteer from Wales, N.Y., sprang into action. She called a hotline to find out where Rhodes ought to be voting and quickly discovered that, yes, he was in the right place.
So it went Tuesday for Spencer and a handful of others from the Buffalo area, most of them lawyers, who kept an eye on the polls in Ohio and Florida. Bracing for challenges over whether voters had the right to vote, the poll-watchers instead spent the day standing in the rain -- or in Florida, the blazing sun -- and helping voters with the most mundane problems.
To Spencer, a 53-year-old librarian at the University at Buffalo Law School, it was all very much worth it.
"It was just a good people day," said Spencer, who, like many others, was spurred into action by the court-decided presidential election of 2000. "I feel like we're on the road to recovery."
Many poll-watchers said such things, noting that the massive polling-place problems that many expected had, in large part, failed to materialize.
Ohio Republicans had gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to win the right to challenge the qualifications of voters. And Democrats feared that this would create long lines at polling places that would discourage voters.
But many of the GOP poll-watchers never appeared at inner-city polling places in the Cleveland area.
Sue Tannehill and Mark Kenmore -- and their two children -- stood guard over a busy but placid polling place at Paul Revere Elementary School in a working-class Cleveland neighborhood.
All morning long, the married couple from Clarence Center, N.Y., handed voters a pamphlet spelling out their voting rights. And all morning long, voters exercised those rights without a hitch.
"Wet shoes are about the worst thing I've had to deal with so far," said Kenmore, 50, a lawyer in Buffalo.
And that came as a great relief to his wife, 51, a freelance writer.
"Our country just doesn't work if people can't vote," she said. "I was shocked at all the ways people's votes weren't counted last time."
In response, Tannehill, Kenmore and Spencer signed up with electionprotection.org, a nonpartisan coalition of groups such as the NAACP and People for the American Way, which sent monitors to polling places nationwide.
Other Buffalo lawyers volunteered to work at polling places for the presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry.
For example, Alice Kryzan spent the day in the Democratic "war room" in Youngstown, Ohio. But there were only small skirmishes to be fought: In a county with 195,000 registered voters, Democrats took only about 100 complaints to the Board of Elections. "We have long lines, but they're not caused by anything but turnout," said Kryzan, 56.
Backups also developed in the Tampa Bay area in Florida, but the two Buffalo lawyers posted as Kerry volunteers at separate polling places there, Andrea Schillaci and Diane Ciurczak, said they had a quiet day. "We're chasing the shade from tree to tree," Schillaci said.
More trouble surfaced in Broward County on Florida's Atlantic coast.
In Pompano Beach, Buffalo lawyer Jeremy Toth reported that some voters' addresses did not match what the poll workers had recorded, meaning that the Kerry volunteers had to intervene to make sure those people could vote.
And in Miramar, Marc Panepinto said a handful of voters had trouble with new electronic voting machines. They tried to vote for Kerry, but when the summary appeared detailing their votes, it showed that they voted for President Bush -- meaning they had to recast their votes.
"The question is, how many people are voting without realizing they have this problem?" said Panepinto, 39.
Yet none of the poll-watchers in Ohio or Florida reported the kind of chaos that had been feared.
"I feel sort of foolish standing around here with nothing to do," said William Gardner, 72, a Buffalo lawyer who worked as a Kerry volunteer at a polling place in Youngstown, "but it's probably a sign of our success."