In dark and cold, Americans cast first ballots
Up and down the East Coast voters braved very cold weather in the pre-dawn darkness as they queued up to bring an end to one of the hardest-fought and most expensive election campaigns ever.
Facing them was a choice between two men with very different visions of how to get economically struggling America back firmly on its feet.
More than 100 people were already patiently waiting in line at the Falls Church community centre for more than half an hour when the basement gymnasium turned polling station threw open its doors at precisely 6am.
"The polls are open! Go on in!" the polling station manager declared.
That equivalent of a referee firing a starting gun echoed up and down the East Coast, with polling stations further west – in battleground states like Ohio that could determine the winner – due to follow suit later.
In this Washington suburb, blue tape on the sidewalk marked the line that Democratic and Republican campaign workers could not cross to solicit votes. Two dogs sat patiently for their owners to return from doing their civic duty.
Virginia, which helped put Obama into the White House in 2008 after favouring Republicans for years, is one of the so-called battleground states where the contest is so tight that it could swing the final national outcome.
Within 20 minutes of polls opening, dozens of voters were seen by AFP reporters waiting outside voting stations in northern Virginia, an early sign of enthusiasm in the race between Obama and Romney.
"It's going to be a higher than normal turnout for sure," said Romney campaigner Chris Redder as he distributed sample ballots to arriving voters in Falls Church indicating which Republican boxes they should tick.
"I consider this an important election," he said. "It's two visions of America – more personal responsibility versus more intrusive government, and pro-life versus what I'd say pro-abortion."
If Obama is re-elected, Redder told AFP, his policies would "damage the country" in ways that would take years to recover from.
"I know it's going to be a tight race," added an older voter who, like many, preferred not to give his name – perhaps not surprising in a part of greater Washington that is thick with national security contractors.
More supporters for Obama
"They enlarged the [voting] facility, so they must have known the same thing."
A middle-aged municipal worker, who immigrated to the US 14 years ago from the Philippines, favoured Obama to win re-election, saying: "If Romney loses, it would be his own fault."
"What happened in 2008 is happening now," he told AFP.
"There are more supporters for Obama – and Romney doesn't have his kind of organisation."
A naturalised immigrant from Japan, a three-time Republican campaign worker employed in the software industry who declined to give her name for what she called "a good reason," favoured Romney.
"I'm a very conservative person and I like his policies," she said. "I tend not to like big government and big spending."
Tuesday's very first ballots were cast just after midnight in the New Hampshire mountain hamlet of Dixville Notch, where they were immediately counted. For the first time ever, it was a tie: five for Obama, five for Romney.
In New Jersey, one of the states hardest hit by last week's superstorm Sandy, people waited in line impatiently amid rubble and rotting rubbish left by the horrendous storm.
In Hoboken, one makeshift polling station was 40 minutes late in opening, drawing complaints from the 60 people in line.
When the doors finally did open, a volunteer came out and told the grumbling crowd: "Please excuse the appearance of this place, two days ago it was under two feet of water." – Sapa-AFP