Primary Voting Problems (Fall 2008 Trust Magazine briefing)

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10/01/2008 - At times, the 2008 primary season may have strained the candidates and the public—and it also taxed the election system because of the dramatically increased number of voters. 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, long lines at polling places, ballot shortages, machine demands and other problems combined to produce a system overwhelmed by voter crowds, according to 2008 Primary in Review by, a project of the Pew Center on the States.

“We saw a primary season busting at the seams with voters,” says Doug Chapin,’s director. “Many election officials might have identified with Sheriff Brody in 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 back seat to long lines, photocopied ballots and overwhelmed poll workers.”

Nearly 58 million Americans voted in the primaries: 37 million in Democratic contests and 21 million in GOP races. States with the most remarkable turnout increases (compared to 2000 and 2004) included Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

A shortage of paper ballots was a frequent problem. 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 mandates for “sufficient” and “adequate” supplies.

In states allowing early and/or "no excuse" absentee voting, nearly one in four voters took advantage of the opportunity. 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 believed they were registered but were 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 fewer than 10 percent in Louisiana.

Provisional ballots may be rejected for a variety of reasons, but the 2008 primary had the additional complication of open versus closed primaries. Available data suggest that those seeking to cross party lines bumped up uncounted totals of provisional ballots. In Oklahoma, for example, 30 percent of rejected provisional ballots were cast by voters who were not authorized to vote in the other party’s race. Half the provisional ballots in Pennsylvania were rejected for this reason.

2008 Primary in Review is available online at Hard copies are available by request at For an inside look at, see the article "Many Happy Returns" in the spring issue of Trust.

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, please visit

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