Primary 2008 Report: High Voter Turnout Led Problems at Polls

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A review of the 2008 primary season has found that the dramatically increased number of voters taxed the election system more than any administrative problem, according to a new report by electionline.org, a project of Pew Center on the States. Millions of voters – many of them first timers – crowded polling places around the country, doubling recent turnout in some states.

The “big three” issues of election reform—voting machines, voter registration databases and voter ID—did not drive the headlines during primary season. Rather, the report found, long lines at polling places, ballot shortages, machine demands and other problems combined to produce a system overwhelmed by voter crowds.

“From New Hampshire in January to Montana in June, we saw a primary season busting at the seams with voters,” said Doug Chapin, electionline.org's director.  “Many election officials might have identified with the character of Sheriff Brody from the movie 'Jaws' who said, after seeing the great white shark, ‘We're gonna need a bigger boat.'  Things did not always run smoothly, but we found that the major issues that have dominated election reform in years past took a backseat to long lines, photocopied ballots and overwhelmed poll workers.”

Nearly 58 million Americans voted in the primaries with 37 million voting in the Democratic contest and 21 million in the GOP race. States with the most dramatic turnout increases compared to 2000 and 2004 included Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

The increased turnout resulted in multiple issues. For example, some polling stations in the District of Columbia ran out of paper ballots before lunch, shifting voting to the one accessible machine available in each precinct. Some clerks around the country resorted to photocopying ballots or employing scraps of paper for voting when supplies were exhausted.

The report found that ballot allocation formulas were largely left to localities and varied greatly across the country – from specific guidelines in Alabama requiring “55 ballots for every 50 votes…cast in the preceding presidential election,” to Montana's and North Carolina's mandate for “sufficient” and “adequate” supplies.

Nearly one in four voters in states allowing early and/or no-excuse absentee voting took advantage of the opportunity to do so. In California, more than 40 percent of voters cast ballots before the primary.

Provisional ballots, while a national mandate, produced disparate results across the country. Every state offered the fail-safe ballots to those who believe they are registered but are not on rolls, yet rates and counting varied during the primary season.

More than 75 percent of provisional ballots in Utah and Texas were counted but less than ten percent were counted in Louisiana.

There are always a variety of reasons that provisional ballots may be rejected, but the 2008 primary had the additional complication of open versus closed primaries. Where available, data suggests that those seeking to cross party lines bumped up uncounted provisional ballot totals. Results from Oklahoma indicated that 30 percent of rejected provisional ballots were cast by voters who were not authorized to vote in the other party's race. In Pennsylvania half the provisional ballots were rejected for this reason. 

The report is available below. Hard copies will be sent upon request. Please e-mail publications@electionline.org.

electionline.org is a project of The Pew Center on the States, a division of The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Center examines effective policy approaches to critical issues facing states by conducting highly credible research, bringing together diverse perspectives, analyzing states' experiences to determine what works and what doesn't, and collaborating with other funders and organizations to shine a spotlight on nonpartisan, pragmatic solutions.

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, please visit electionline.org.