Although the polls were originally scheduled to have closed by now, thousands of Venezuelans continue to stand in lines at polling stations. The Venezuelan Electoral Council extended voting hours and promised that everyone who wanted to would be able to vote either for or against the removal of President Hugo Chavez. International observers say that, in spite of the delays, the process is going well.

Most of the delays in Sunday's referendum were caused by devices to read voter thumbprints to verify their identity. But another factor was the overwhelming turnout. Tens of thousands of voters lined streets in Caracas before dawn and waited patiently for hours in order to cast their vote.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who is here at the head of the Atlanta-based Carter Center's delegation, says he is impressed by what he saw at the polling stations in and around Caracas.

"All of those that we have visited have begun in a timely fashion and in a very orderly way. I have participated, the Carter Center has, in more than 50 elections around the world. This is the largest turnout I have ever seen. Thousands of people are waiting in line patiently and without any disturbance," he said.

In an attempt to stem potential violence, no exit polls or extra official reports on results are allowed in this election. But the Electoral Council has promised to have at least partial results within hours after the polls close. Given the delays, however, there is not likely to be a full accounting of results until sometime Monday.

Both supporters of President Chavez and the opposition expressed confidence of victory going into the election. But President Chavez has said that, if he loses, he will turn over power to the vice president and then run in the election that is to follow the referendum within 30 days.

If Mr. Chavez has a substantial percentage of the referendum vote and if the opposition fails to unite behind one candidate, the controversial leader could win that election and return to power.

But even if he does not, the opposition will face enormous challenges in running a government bureaucracy that is now full of Chavez sympathizers. The state-owned oil company, which supplies much of the government's revenue, is now under the control of executives handpicked by President Chavez. Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil producer and any problems in the oil industry could have a disruptive impact on the international petroleum market.