Officials fear swamping of election system

Rush of new voters, changing technology could cause stress

July 21, 2008|By New York Times News Service

With millions of new voters heading to the polls this November and many states introducing new voting technologies, election officials and voting monitors say they fear the combination is likely to create long lines, stressed-out poll workers and late tallies on Election Day.

At least 11 states will use new voting equipment as the nation shifts away from touch-screen machines and to the paper ballots of optical scanners, which will be used by more than 55 percent of voters. About half of all voters will use machines unlike the ones they used in the last presidential election, experts say, and more than half of the states will use new statewide databases to verify voter registration.

With Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy expected to attract many new voters who may never have encountered a voting machine, voting experts and election officials say they are worried that the system may buckle under the increased strain.

"I'm concerned about the weak spots," said Rosemary E. Rodriguez, the chairwoman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which oversees voting. "So much depends on whether there will be enough poll workers, whether they are trained enough and whether their state and county election directors give them contingency plans and resources to handle the unexpected."

Some areas, including Baltimore, ran out of paper ballots in 2006 or in this year's primaries and plan to order many more this fall. Ohio plans to add paper backups in case its electronic machines break down again, as they did in 2004, creating long lines. New Jersey, New York and California, among other states, face shortages of poll workers or the money to pay for them. And voting rights advocates are working with officials in Florida, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania to try to prevent the kind of ballot design problems that added to the loss of about 12,000 votes in this year's presidential primary in Los Angeles County and about 18,000 votes in a 2006 congressional contest in Sarasota County, Fla.

As state and local election officials scramble to get enough ballots, workers and equipment to handle the predicted high turnout, many are trying to ease the strain of Election Day by encouraging voters to cast their ballots early. But the problems may be complicated by changes to the lists of eligible voters. Recent purges of voters from registration lists and the influx of registrations may result in names erroneously being dropped.

Poll worker training and ballot design will be more important than ever this year. The election commission has predicted that at least 2 million poll workers will be needed in November, double the number who worked in the 2004 presidential election.

But many states face budget problems that make it hard to recruit poll workers. New York City election officials have said they lack the money to pay the estimated 8,000 additional poll workers needed in November. Several states have resorted to recruiting high school students.

Rodriguez said that the high level of turnover in the people who run state and local elections was also a concern. More than two-thirds of the election directors in the nation's 50 largest counties were new to the office in 2004, and the number may be even higher now, according to Election Data Services, a Washington consulting firm that tracks voting trends.

About one-third of voters will use touch-screen machines, down from 38 percent in 2006, while about 55 percent of voters will use paper ballots read by optical-scan machines, up from 49 percent of voters in 2006, said Kimball W. Brace, president of Election Data Services.

The main issue with the paper ballots will be their unfamiliarity to voters, not the technology itself. Paper ballots require only a writing surface, and far fewer optical scanners are needed to count them.

But poll workers will have to explain the system to new voters and make certain to print and to distribute enough paper ballots for each polling place. In the past, shortages of paper ballots or electronic machines have been a common cause of long lines and people leaving the polling places without voting, said Adam Fogel, a program director at FairVote, a voting rights group.

He said election officials must be nimble enough to send extra ballots or machines to precincts experiencing heavy turnouts. But a report to be released in August by FairVote says that many swing states have been unable to do that.

In Baltimore, election officials so underestimated turnout in the 2006 primary that polling places ran out of ballots by midday and voters ended up using random pieces of paper, including campaign literature, as ballots, said Tova A. Wang, vice president for research at Common Cause, a voting rights advocacy group.

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