Ballot Shortages a Continuing Problem

It's a simple question with no simple answer: Why do polling places across America keep running out of ballots when it's no secret that this contentious primary season keeps breaking voter turnout records?

For one, even the best-made plans have gone awry; officials in state after state have ordered more ballots, only to see turnouts exceed their most ambitious estimates.

Some states - California, for example - extended registration deadlines, in part to give would-be voters more time to sign up for the first Democratic presidential nomination race between a black man and a woman.

But some election officials say those extensions have necessitated a form of fortune telling when it comes to deciding how many ballots to order.

Not helping is the fact that ballot printing is a highly specialized field with a limited number of companies willing to take on the heavily monitored and time-consuming burden of producing and delivering voting cards. Price per ballot can range from 20 cents to more than $1, depending on complexity. Lead times for printing can range from months to weeks to days, depending on circumstances, including the proximity of Election Day.

So with Pennsylvania's important April 22 primary looming, and nine other state nominating contests scheduled for May, election activists wonder if even more voters could be subject to huge lines and disenfranchisement caused by an insufficient supply of ballots.

"We're going to keep having this problem," said Doug Lewis, director of the Election Center, which represents voting officials across the country. "Running an election sounds pretty simple until you try to do it. Folks just don't understand how much advance planning goes into setting this up.

"If you run out of ballots, it's because your crystal ball isn't good enough," Lewis said. "Every time you cut the time between the voter registration deadline and the election, you severely impact the voting system."

California discovered that on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, when massive numbers swarmed the polls and record-setting votes were cast by mail. In the Bay Area, ballots ran out. State officials, who had closed registration rolls only two weeks before, were admittedly not prepared for such a surge and were still counting ballots weeks later. California's vote was certified March 15.

On March 4, precincts in Texas and trouble-prone Ohio ran out of ballots, too. In Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, Barack Obama's campaign obtained a federal court order to keep polling places open an extra 90 minutes because of ballot shortages.

"If you run out of ballots," said the Election Center's Lewis, "God help you."

Lawrence Haake, general registrar of Virginia's Chesterfield County, outside Richmond, well knows that sentiment. His was the state's only county to run out of ballots on Feb. 12. Since then, he has been vilified by critics who say he mismanaged the primary and failed to heed warning signs from other states where polling places were deluged by turnout that reached as high as 80 percent.

"I've been called everything but a Christian, which I am," said Haake. "This county has a pitiful, pitiful history of voter turnout. I thought I'd ordered enough to cover."

He hadn't. More than 38,000 Democratic voters showed up, nearly four times the number that cast ballots in the last presidential primary. Obama won by a large margin. Republican turnout - with John McCain way ahead in opinion polls, was very low in comparison- about 23,000 votes.

Despite his disbelief, Haake said he did increase his Democratic ballot orders - from 30,000 in January to 42,000 in February after nervously eyeing Super Tuesday contests in 24 states. Virginia is an open primary state, meaning registered Democrats can vote a GOP ballot, and vice versa.

"I had no way of knowing which way they'd vote," Haake said. He thinks he understands what happened: After distant-second GOP candidate Mitt Romney withdrew right before the primary, "the Republicans came in and voted Democratic," just to have some influence in the overall nominating process, he said.

Nine precincts ran out of ballots. "We had enough, we just didn't have them in the right places," he said.

Haake printed more ballots in his office and sent them out. But some people couldn't wait for delivery. Those voters were allowed to leave paper slips indicating their preference, but the state disqualified those slips.

Haake said he's learned his lesson. For November's general election, he's ordering 110 percent of the voter registration total. "We're going to have enough ballots even if everybody on the rolls shows up," he said.

Candice Hoke, an elections monitor and Cleveland State University professor, said some states, including North Carolina - where the primary is May 6 - require that ballot numbers reflect 101 percent of the registered voter total. But many states have no such requirements.

Also, she said, most county governments across the country have experienced some form of cutbacks. "Printing up hundreds of thousands of ballots, just to junk them afterward, is not something a county wants to carry. Budgets are being cut. Costs are being cut."

In North Carolina, New Hanover County elections director Bonnie Williams took Haake's strategy a step further. She's ordered 100 percent of the voter registration for both Democrats and Republicans, even though her state conducts closed primaries - meaning voters can't cross party lines.

"We're not going to run out of ballots here, that's not gonna happen," Williams said, with a good-natured chuckle. "And my board chairman told me not to let it happen."

Williams said she took the extra precaution because North Carolina allows unaffiliated voters - those who register but decline to declare a party affiliation - to vote Democrat or Republican.

"I don't have a crystal ball on my desk, so I don't know which way the unaffiliated voter will go," she said. There are about 132,000 voters in her county. In the last election in 2007, voter turnout was only 18,000.

"It's going to be way beyond that" on May 6, she said. "People here are excited."

Election officers in Indiana, which shares North Carolina's primary date, are registering voters until April 7 - and then upping ballot orders to account for every person on the rolls. "Normally, we order about 70 percent in a general election," said Floyd County election director Linda Moeller. "I've never ordered this many ballots."

Is she nervous?

"I think that is yet to come. We're excited. Oh, my gosh. You just hope that you've calculated correctly."


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