Stateline Story

Voter Surge Will Challenge States

  • July 28, 2008
  • By Pauline Vu

With a historic presidential race expected to drive huge numbers of people - particularly first-time voters - to the polls, states have a lot of work in store to ensure that every vote counts.

This year's presidential primaries showed that the problems that made headlines in the past - with voter registration rolls, identification requirements and voting machine glitches - have been upstaged by a new difficulty. The huge turnout that whittled the presidential race to Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain overwhelmed some states and counties, according to a July 24 report by electionline.org , a project of the Pew Center on the States that tracks election reform efforts.

"Some places were unprepared. Some places just couldn't handle it," said Dan Seligson, electionline.org's publications manager. "Even though they knew that there would be a massive number of voters, they just didn't have the capacity."

Of the November election, he added, "People know it's going to be a historically high turnout. Whether they can do anything about it is another question."

Poor ballot design - which some believe helped George W. Bush defeat Al Gore in 2000 - is also a concern, according to a July 20 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. In every election, "tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of voters (are) disenfranchised … sometimes raising serious questions about whether the intended choice of the voters was certified as the winner," the report stated.

In recent years, states have had their hands full replacing outdated voting equipment. Some have had to switch gears after purchasing new ATM-like electronic machines to add paper trails that allow votes to be verified. Election officials also have been developing statewide computerized voter registration lists.

But this year's election presents a new challenge. Almost 58 million people voted in the primaries, about 64 percent of them in the Democratic race, reported electionline.org , which, like Stateline.org , is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Of the 40 states that held presidential primaries along with Washington, D.C., 36 saw primary turnout reach an eight-year high. In Kentucky, the Democratic primary alone had more voters than the governor's general election contest in 2007.

The inexact science of predicting voter turnout led to long lines in several places and ballot shortages in precincts in California, Ohio and Washington, D.C. In one California county, the registrar had to make photocopies of the ballots. In Virginia's Chesterfield County, Democrats used scraps of paper to cast their votes.

The competitive Democratic primary not only energized voters, it also extended the race beyond its usual length. In 2004, John Kerry essentially claimed the Democratic nomination in March, but this year saw Obama and Hillary Clinton battling it out until June. That made the race competitive in states not used to being in play.

Usually "the first couple of primaries get all the attention, it's decided, and nobody turns out for other elections later on in the primary season," said Kimball Brace, the president of Election Data Services , a consulting firm. "And that didn't happen this time, and I think that's where some elections administrators in later primaries got caught."

With interest running high in this year's presidential race, another worry is that last-minute voter registration drives could swamp election officials and leave some eligible new voters off the rolls. Between the voter registration deadline and Election Day, it could be a question of whether election offices can handle a "five-foot-high stack of registration applications," said electionline.org's Seligson. "Some might get lost or replaced, or the person didn't fill out all the information, and they're not on the rolls."

Ballot design is a perennial concern, according to the Brennan report. The most infamous example of poor ballot design was the 2000 butterfly ballot used in Florida's Palm Beach County. Democrats say the setup led up to 2,000 Democratic voters to mistakenly vote for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan. Bush won the state by fewer than 600 votes.

Another Florida county, Sarasota, was criticized in 2006 when poor ballot design led more than 18,000 voters to skip a congressional race that was listed above a more prominently displayed governor's race. The winner beat his opponent by 369 votes.

In this year's Democratic primary, confusing ballot instructions led to thousands of votes by independents not being counted in a Los Angeles county. Independents, who were allowed to vote in the Democratic primary, first had to check a circle at the top of a Democratic ballot indicating that they wanted to vote in the Democratic primary. About 12,000 of them skipped this step.

Lawrence Norden, one of the authors of the Brennan report, said the main thing states should do - though none presently are - is to push counties to conduct usability tests before finalizing their ballots. That means having voters test out the ballots to see whether they get confused and to time how long it takes them to vote.

Norden also recommends that states review counties' ballot designs. Only Connecticut, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin review locally designed ballots at the state level.

Norden's group has met with officials in Ohio and will travel to Iowa and Pennsylvania to discuss their concerns. But there's not much time left to educate elections officials about the problem. "I think the next eight weeks are crucial on this issue because that's when most counties are going to finalize their ballots. Raising public awareness about this now, if we're concerned about avoiding a problem in November, is critical," he said.

Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson said his state is trying to alleviate long lines and Election Day stress by making voters aware of online resources where they can check their registration status and polling place.

His office also is trying to make sure voting machines are spread out to the precincts that need them most, "although unfortunately we're operating in an era of very tight budgets, and elections tends to be an area where most legislatures do not tend to allocate money. So we're doing the best we can, given the limited resources," Grayson said.

Although voting machine weren't a major problem in the primary, there is still the potential for glitches on Nov. 4 as new technology debuts. In Kentucky, for example, 30 counties will unveil new machines in the fall, adding paper-based optical scanners.

Problems will be compounded if voter turnout hits record levels. "I think we're likely to see many more people than even we can imagine now," Brace said. "The issue is, will we be prepared for that?"