On Election Day, Americans took time to vote, and to explain why this ritual means so much to them. At polling places and in luncheonettes, on the storm-battered East Coast and in a California city hobbled by foreclosure, in precincts large and small, they celebrated democracy -- and the end of a long and bitter campaign.
STOCKTON, Calif.: Signs of hope amid misery, and a first-time vote for one American who still believes in the dream
Every election big and small, Carl Chua rents out the garage of his family's house as a polling place. With neighbors working the tables and crossing his lawn to cast ballots, he stood in his driveway and surveyed the ruins of the housing bubble's aftermath.
"One, two, three, four, five. Six," the 52-year-old postal carrier said, pointing to the homes on his block that had fallen to foreclosures since the nation last picked a president. "We are the only ones left behind of the original owners."
Stockton, a port city 83 miles east of San Francisco, has spent the last four years with the highest foreclosure rate in the United States. In June, the city became the largest in the nation to ever declare bankruptcy. Here, the broken middle-class dreams debated by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are made of moving trucks, "For Sale" signs, plummeting credit scores and the bars that residents like Zelma Emery, 45, have put on their windows to prevent break-ins.
Emery, who was laid off from her job as a phlebotomist five years ago, blames Congress more than the White House for her community's pain. She voted to re-elect Barack Obama.
"It's gotten a little better. But right here anyway, it hasn't gotten much better," she said.
Yesenia Perez, 34, a mother of five who works at a local fruit-packing house, has had her share of hard times, too: Work hours cut. A home lost to foreclosure.
Yet on Tuesday, she felt compelled to do something she had never done before: vote.
Because of the immigration policies of the president she calls "Our Obama," several cousins no longer face deportation to Mexico. Instead, they can be part of a dream that, while broken, still is worth having, Perez said.
"In the past I didn't think I could make a difference in the election," she said, not long before the polls starting closing back East and Election Day 2012 neared its finish. "Now, I'm motivated."
--By LISA LEFF, Associated Press Writer
PHOENIX: In "show me your papers" state, young Latinos work to turn out vote
In a nondescript office building near an auto repair shop and a 99 Cents Only store, a dozen bleary-eyed volunteers sat before phones and computers, doing their part to contribute to democracy and a cause close to their hearts: Helping to turn out the Latino vote in a state that is 30 percent Hispanic.
"Buenos dias," said 23-year-old Norma Melendez as she answered phones at Mi Familia Vota, a nonpartisan effort to increase Hispanic participation in the electoral process. Melendez, wearing a shirt that read "Election Protection. You Have The Right To Vote," was going on 24-plus straight hours of work, helping to direct callers to the right polling places. "I just think it's important to vote. I don't like when people take advantage of others, or think they are ignorant somehow."
Next to her, Michael Maez gulped a Monster energy drink (his third of the day) as he prepared to send canvassers across the city.
Maez, 22, was born and raised in this state known for its tough stance on immigration and the so-called "show me your papers" law, requiring police enforcing other laws to question the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally. But his father, who remodels homes, and his mother, who provides daycare services, came here from Morelos, Mexico. Unlike their citizen son, they are legal permanent residents and, therefore, ineligible to vote.
For Maez, this day was about much more than which candidates he chose or propositions he voted for or against. It was, in his words, a chance to "wake up" all politicians to the issues that matter to families like his. "It empowers all of the people who have a voice to use it for the ones who don't."
--By PAULINE ARRILLAGA, AP National Writer
LAKEWOOD, Colo.: Two women, two different decisions
In swing state Colorado, elections typically are decided in three suburban counties where women play a key role. That fact didn't escape the Romney and Obama campaigns, which spent plenty of time and money reaching out to that important voting bloc in Arapahoe, Larimer and Jefferson counties -- and, indeed, all across the land.
In Lakewood, west of Denver in Jefferson County, finding the time to even vote was one of many challenges for single mother Amber Tuffield. Her day started in typical fashion: Three trips up the stairs to rouse her 13-year-old son, Dallas, out of bed. A trip down to the basement to find clean clothes for her 16-year-old daughter, Sage. Put a pot roast in the Crock-Pot for dinner.
Tuffield works two jobs -- one as a secretary, the other bartending -- and worries most about having decent health care and ensuring her children get a solid education. But two things in particular stuck with her this Election Day: Mitt Romney's secretly recorded assertion that 47 percent of Americans see themselves as "victims," and his suggestion that students should borrow money from their parents if they can't afford college.
It all left her questioning whether the Republican could really relate to people like her, and prompted this registered independent to vote for Obama instead.
"Looking at both of them, I'm more comfortable with the known than the unknown," said Tuffield, 44.
In Arapahoe County, Republican precinct leader Lori Horn spent her day coordinating poll observers. Like Tuffield, she worries about her children's future, but believes Romney and his economic plan are the best bet for her family.
"I have a daughter on the precipice of college and a career," said the 50-year-old mother of two. "I have to make this a priority."
--By P. SOLOMON BANDA, Associated Press Writer
CHICAGO: Supporting the president in style
Make no mistake -- Carter's Barber Shop is Obama country.
None of the customers here waited until Tuesday to cast ballots. They voted for the president days or weeks ago. Kim Jackson, who was getting her hair trimmed, wore an "I WAS THERE" button that she bought that celebratory night four years ago when she watched President-elect Barack Obama take the stage in Grant Park.
Bert Downing, the shop's owner, said Obama needs more time to deal with "the huge plate of problems he inherited. ... It's a work in progress. I just want to see him complete the mission. "
Downing believes Obama has been treated differently because he's black. "The blatant disrespect?" he said, shaking his head in frustration. "Would they have done it if had been Bush or Reagan? At the bottom of all this ... is race. If he were white, he wouldn't have the same problems."
It would be hard to find a more Obama-friendly spot in this overwhelmingly Democratic city. The barber shop sits on the edge of a West Side ward that supported the president by a 99 percent-plus majority in 2008. And the regulars are pleased with his policies.
Charles Leeks, who had a liver transplant last November, pointed to Obama's health care program. Because of it, he said, he doesn't have to worry about a lifetime cap on insurance coverage.
But Leeks said the president doesn't get the credit he deserves. Instead, he said, Obama's been subject to harping about his birth certificate and college transcripts. "It's an insult to the country. ... All these things that we're patting ourselves on the back for as a society that we've really evolved -- we still have a lot of work to do."
--By SHARON COHEN, AP National Writer
WARREN, Mich.: Off the factory line, on the streets
At the United Auto Workers regional headquarters, hundreds of volunteers awaited pep talks and final get-out-the-vote assignments on a cold, gray Tuesday. Among them: Keely Bell and Joseph Losier, two strangers paired up for last-minute door-knocking.
For Bell, 42, this was her first up-close view of a UAW Election Day. She'd been out of work for more than two years when a rebounding Chrysler hired her to a nearby assembly plant in 2011.
Losier, who works at a different Chrysler plant in this Detroit suburb, is a fourth-generation auto-worker. Pounding the pavement for the union is his regular Election Day routine.
What they share is a conviction that the auto industry bailout President Barack Obama supported made a real difference in their lives, and a faith that personal connections -- conversations during breaks on the factory floor, neighborhood canvassing, even a last word as voters arrive at their polling stations -- can persuade people.
"Because of what the president did, I was able to get a job," said Bell, a mother of two whose husband also works at Chrysler. Quoting a common election year mantra, "Vote like your life depends on it," Bell added: "I've never taken that so true to heart."
Losier, a father of four, said he, too, would be surely be unemployed today without the bailout. Now he sees the industry hiring again, and vacant homes in his neighborhood starting to fill. But the buzz of 2008 is gone.
This election, "it's like we're battle-hardened soldiers," said Losier, 33. "We know what we have to do. Let's get it done."
With that, the pair hopped in Losier's new Dodge Dart and joined a long line of vehicles -- not an import among them -- streaming out for a few final hours of work.
--By JUSTIN POPE, Associated Press Writer
PATASKALA, Ohio: In battleground Ohio, relief the election is (almost) over
If there was one thing the regulars at the Nutcracker restaurant could agree upon Tuesday, it was that the presidential campaign went on for far too long.
Like voters throughout Ohio, residents of this small town east of Columbus were inundated for months with ads, campaign mail and phone calls. Just Monday, both Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney stumped in central Ohio for the umpteenth time.
"Overbearing," said 77-year-old Ken Armentrout, a retired truck driver who stopped in to eat after voting for Romney on a bright, frosty day. "It was the same thing over and over."
"Annoying," added Jack Cruikshank, a 69-year-old retired heavy equipment operator who voted early for Romney. "They beat you over the head with it."
Sitting between them was 61-year-old Lewie Hoskinson, a retired city worker who his friends claim is the only Obama supporter in the town of 14,000 souls. "I'm sure there are others, but I'm the only one who will admit it," Hoskins said, to belly laughs from his buddies.
Pataskala (pronounced puh-TASK-uh-lah) and rural Licking County are so Republican that Hoskins twice had his Obama yard sign vandalized. Still, Hoskinson said he supported the president because he seemed more in touch with the working man and because he engineered the auto bailout, a big deal in a state where that industry looms large.
His friends acknowledged they weren't exactly thrilled with Romney but said Obama hadn't done enough to get the economy moving.
And on that subject, these Republicans and their Democratic companion could also find consensus.
In Ohio and the rest of the country, they said, this Election Day was still all about the economy.
--By MITCH STACY, Associated Press Writer
BOCA RATON, Fla.: A century of wisdom at the polls
After 102 years on this earth, after a life as an art teacher and a store owner, after seeing war and a Depression and presidents good and bad, Selma Friedman sees no reason to muffle her opinion. What does this election mean? She'll give you an earful.
She wants to see war ended and schools renewed, for manufacturing to return and women's rights to improve. She worries about health care and climate change and energy and fairness, and stops for only a moment before continuing her litany.
Friedman's first presidential vote was for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. When she voted Tuesday at St. Andrews South, her retirement community in Boca Raton, Fla., she went with a Democrat again, marking Obama on her ballot with no hesitation.
"He couldn't do it all in four years," she said.
In this vital swing state, Obama's hopes hinged on getting supporters to turn out en masse in Democrat-rich South Florida. And with a higher percentage of seniors than any other state, Florida's 29 electoral votes depend, in part, on older voters' approval.
Around the breakfast table at St. Andrews, Romney supporters shook their heads when they considered the past four years. Doris Jacobsen, 76, a retired secretary, couldn't imagine why someone would give Obama their vote again.
"What has he done?" she asked with refrained outrage, a piece of bacon pinched between her fingers.
Friedman has heard those arguments, along with her neighbors' thoughts on tax rates and foreign policy and abortion. She cannot convince them. She is a couple decades older than most here. Maybe, she thinks, it's just youthful ignorance.
--By MATT SEDENSKY, Associated Press Writer
APEX, N.C.: Once laid-off, a voter says Obama deserves a chance to turn things around
A few miles outside of Raleigh, N.C., voters streamed into the Wake County Firearms Education & Training Center to cast ballots. They lined up along a hallway dominated by posters offering National Rifle Association classes and "ladies handgun leagues." As Jerome Gantt signed in at the registration table, a target stared at him from the wall beyond.
The 34-year-old black independent voted for Republican John McCain four years ago, but not because he did not like Barack Obama.
"I honestly didn't want a black man to be the first president coming into that bad a situation," said Gantt, who works for a pharmaceuticals company.
Gantt is far from happy with how the last four years have turned out. He and his wife, Paquita, were laid off within months of each other. Both are now back at work, and he feels that many who remain unemployed either didn't want to take a step down or move out of their comfort zone.
And, he added: "I don't think four years is enough time really to turn anything around."
Pat Crosswhite couldn't disagree more. The 55-year-old Holly Springs woman thinks Obama, if re-elected, should be impeached over his handling of the consulate attack in Libya. "I think what he started is terrible," said Crosswhite, who does voice-overs for television commercials. "I don't want him to finish it."
Four years ago, Gantt resisted the tug of "history." This time, he favored giving Obama the chance to live up to his promises.
"I don't feel elation," he said. "Even if Obama wins, I won't go out celebrating tonight and say, 'Yes. We won.' Because we won't win until four years from now, when we can see what the results are of his actions."
--By ALLEN G. BREED, AP National Writer
LITTLE FERRY, N.J.: Voting in the shadow of Sandy
The Big Dipper hangs over Liberty Street as Frank Puzzo arrives to begin his Election Day duties. Just a week ago, rescuers were piloting boats through three feet of water that coursed past Memorial School and throughout this storm-scarred town. Now, it's 28 degrees; the first voters won't arrive for nearly an hour.
But Puzzo -- whose apartment still has no heat or hot water, whose car was claimed by storm surge -- is the first to arrive to prepare and open the polls.
"This is super important for the future of the country, especially the way things have been for the last few years," says Puzzo, an accountant who has been out of work since the end of July. "It's one of the most basic and important rights that we have, the right to choose our governmental leaders."
The people of Little Ferry could be pardoned if they focused purely on their beleaguered present. Some arrived shivering and clearly exhausted, their long-held certainties about shelter and safety deeply shaken. But the future matters to the people lined up at the voting machines in the hallway outside Ms. Kukula's third-grade class.
Agim Coma, a 25-year-old construction worker, is the first voter to arrive, 13 minutes before polls open. The storm claimed his apartment and car.
It's important because it's our day," he said, as Election Day in America got under way here and everywhere. "No matter what happens -- hurricanes, tornados -- it's our day to vote."
--By ADAM GELLER, AP National Writer