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Despite the extra planning, state ballot shortages persist

Bonnie Williams, director of the New Hanover County Board of Elections in North Carolina, has ordered 162,890 ballots for 131,856 registered voters who may vote in the May 6 primary. Bonnie Williams, director of the New Hanover County Board of Elections in North Carolina, has ordered 162,890 ballots for 131,856 registered voters who may vote in the May 6 primary. (Logan Wallace/Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Deborah Hastings
Associated Press / March 31, 2008

NEW YORK - 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 an African-American 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 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 Ohio ran out of ballots, too. In Cuyahoga County, Barack Obama's campaign obtained a federal court order to keep polling places open an extra 90 minutes because of ballot shortages.

Virginia's Chesterfield County was the only county in the state to run out of ballots on Feb. 12. Lawrence Haake, the general registrar, 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.

More than 38,000 Democratic voters showed up, nearly four times the number that cast ballots in the last presidential primary. Republican turnout 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. 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.

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

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