Lake County did two things Tuesday it couldn't in May: count the votes in a timely fashion and help deliver the state of Indiana to Barack Obama. But problems with absentee ballots in Madison County and late tallies in a handful of precincts prolonged the suspense until well after midnight.
Obama was declared the winner shortly after 2 a.m. EST, beating John McCain by 22,986 votes to become the first Democrat to capture Indiana in 44 years. His 70,498-vote margin in Lake County, the state's second most populous county and its most diverse, was far larger.
"I'm gratified for the way things went," said Gary Mayor Rudy Clay, the Lake County Democratic Party chairman. "I'm extremely proud especially of the people in Gary, Indiana, the people in Lake County, Indiana, and the people of the United States. It's a great day for the country and the world."
Earlier Tuesday evening about 500 people watched the election results at the Genesis Center in downtown Gary. By the time Obama was declared the winner nationwide, about 100 people remained. They cheered and hugged one another, sang "We shall overcome," then broke out into a chant of "We did it."
Most left more than an hour before Obama won Indiana, but they left confident he was going to win the state.
"Lake County delivered indiana and we couldn't be happier," said Jim Wieser, an attorney and the county coordinator for Obama's voter protection program. "It's good to see Indiana vote for a Democrat."
Tuesday's victory came more than seven hours after polls had closed. Long lines of voters and problems counting absentee ballots delayed the results of the record-breaking election.
The biggest problem was in Madison County, which had more than 11,000 absentee ballots still to count.
Calls to Madison County were not immediately returned early Wednesday, but county Clerk Ludy Watkins told The Herald Bulletin of Anderson that some ballots weren't coded correctly to be read by the county's vote counting machine. Nicole Slater, a spokeswoman for supplier Election Systems & Software, told the newspaper the problem was with the county's machine.
The glitch was one of the few blemishes on a day that put Indiana's election system to an unprecedented test.
The Indiana electorate cast a record 2.7 million votes in the presidential race with 99 percent of precincts reporting. That eclipsed the previous record of 2.51 million cast in 2004. Nearly 669,000 early ballots were cast, up from about 260,000 in the 2004 election.
Election officials reported instances where poll workers didn't show up on time and problems with voting machines and voters going to the wrong sites. But overall, even watchdog groups appeared pleased.
In Lake County, the vote counting went much quicker than in May, when slow results cost Hillary Rodham Clinton some much-needed momentum as most people went to bed not knowing who had won the election.
On Tuesday, though, more than 110 workers started counting votes earlier and did it in a more spacious area where the media and others could watch. Most of the votes were counted before midnight.
"The election is over and it was a good clean election," county Republican Party Chairman John Curley said.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott, a Clinton supporter who criticized the slow vote count in May, praised the work Tuesday night, saying maybe what happened in the primary helped.
"Maybe it was a good thing," he said.
But it wouldn't be an election in Lake County without some controversy, and a partisan dispute over early voting fit the bill.
Republicans fought to close three early voting centers in Gary, East Chicago and Hammond, saying the Democrat-controlled election board had approved them in violation of state law and raising concerns about voter fraud in a county known for its political shenanigans. Democrats said the GOP was trying to suppress votes by the poor and minorities who would favor Obama.
A special judge and the Indiana Court of Appeals let the centers remain open.
Though he opposed the satellite voting sites, Curley said Tuesday he thinks voting centers might be the wave of the future.
"I think we have to look at the process and see if we can do something," he said.