Elections officials brace for overwhelming voter turnout
With just days to go, election officials nationwide are attempting to finish their preparations for what experts predict to be an overwhelming voter turnout on Nov. 4. States are reporting record registration figures. But researchers say some states are not ready.
WASHINGTON — At election offices across the country, phones are ringing off the hook.
The Virginia State Board of Elections typically handles about 1,000 phone calls each week. In the week leading up to the close of voter registration on Oct. 6, the office answered more than 44,000 calls.
With just days to go, election officials are attempting to finish their preparations for what experts predict to be an overwhelming voter turnout on Nov. 4. This year's primaries gave only a modest preview of the general election turnout, said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan Web site on election reform.
"We saw several states that were just overwhelmed by voters," Chapin said. "We don't have a system that is actually prepared to handle 100 percent turnout."
States are reporting record registration figures. Pennsylvania has reached a high of 8.6 million registered voters, and the Indiana voter rolls show more than 470,000 new voters since the 2006 election.
But researchers say some states are not ready.
A report released last week by Common Cause, a nonpartisan election reform group, gave low preparation ratings to a handful of states, including battlegrounds Colorado and Virginia. The data showed flaws in a number of areas, including inadequate paper ballots to back up voting machines and insufficient vote-counting methods.
Other issues have arisen in Ohio, where the Supreme Court stepped in to resolve a disagreement over updates to the state's voter database.
Florida, despite improvements since 2000, also raises concerns, Chapin said, such as the state's exact-match standard for its voter database, which could delay registrations and increase provisional ballots. Floridians will be using their third voting system in as many elections, potentially creating more confusion.
The more than 30 states that allow early voting are already running elections.
Nearly one in four voters in states that offered early or no-excuse absentee voting cast their ballot before their primary election date, according to the Pew Center on the States. That figure is expected to rise — an idea that officials are supporting to ease lines.
And the indications from early voting also suggest record black turnout, The Associated Press reports. In North Carolina, blacks make up 31 percent of early voters so far, even though they're just 21 percent of the population. In neighboring Georgia, roughly 36 percent of the early voters are black, outpacing their 30 percent proportion of the state's population.
Even with early voting, turnout on Election Day is still expected to be high. In Virginia, which had 71 percent turnout rate in 2004, officials are forecasting turnout to be around 90 percent of the state's more than 5 million voters.
Voters should expect lines, said Susan Pollard, spokeswoman for the Virginia State Board of Elections, comparing the enthusiasm to that of events for which people are willing to wait in long lines, like the release of Apple's iPhone.
"This is Election Day, and the payoff here is much, much greater," Pollard said.
The key to handling a larger turnout is recruiting and training poll workers, said David King, a Harvard University political scientist who studies election reform.
"This is the first time in years that there's an indication the average poll-worker age has dropped," he said, noting that younger volunteers are more tech-savvy, which can help decrease wait times.
Douglas County south of Denver has embraced this idea. Officials set up a partnership with the school system, and are recruiting 200 high school students to work the polls.
The other major focus is on equipment. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) from 2002 allocated $3 billion in federal funds to help states upgrade their voting systems, much of which has been spent on new equipment.
About 1,200 jurisdictions changed equipment between 2004 and 2006, said Kim Brace of Election Data Services, a nonpartisan consulting firm. Another 130 have put in new systems since 2006.
"While the country has done a run (of most equipment in 2006), they have not done a run with everyone showing up," Brace said. "You don't want to experiment with something new in the biggest election of your lifetime."
There's a learning curve for voters with a machine that they only use every two or four years — especially in a year likely to have a high number of first-time voters.
Part of the preparation lies in the voters' hands. Virginia officials have added 300 polling spots this year to alleviate lines, but it's up to voters to check on where to go.
But if states haven't kept their preparations on track, it will end up costing taxpayers as officials ramp up staff to meet the deadline.
"It happens on a specific date," Brace said. "There's no time to say 'Oh, I'm not ready yet.' You don't have that luxury. It's going to come on Nov. 4."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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