washingtonpost.com
10,000 Special Ballots Being Counted
A Crush of Voters and Unanticipated Turnout Caused a Shortage of Paper

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 16, 2008

About 10,000 people, who could not be found on the voter rolls or were not registered members of a party, submitted special ballots in the District's presidential primary Tuesday, contributing to the ballot shortage that caused long lines and confusion at the polls, the executive director of the Board of Elections and Ethics said yesterday.

The unanticipated turnout and resulting lack of paper ballots drew numerous complaints from voters who had to wait for more ballots to be delivered. Many voters did not understand the city's closed primary system, meaning a voter must be registered with a party to vote, said Alice P. Miller, the executive director.

"Paper ballots were drained by residents who were not eligible to vote in the party primary but nonetheless insisted on voting," she said at a public roundtable yesterday.

The crush of voters wasn't the only cause of the problems.

Poll workers, "scared" of technology, refused to make touch-screen machines available, Miller said. "Some of our workers don't like the electronic machines," she said. "Some of them tried to hide them. . . . They will not be asked to return."

Miller did not give a number during her testimony but said later in an interview that those instances were few.

Miller appeared tired, was hoarse and coughed frequently during the roundtable, which was swiftly set up by D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) in response to the many complaints to her office. Schwartz heads the council Committee on Workforce Development and Government Operations, which oversees the elections board.

As contentious as the ballot problems was the delay in counting and reporting the vote. The polls closed at 8 p.m., but results were not available until 9:28 p.m., according to Miller.

Because of the long lines, voters were lingering at 8 p.m. and the last ballots were not cast until 8:30 p.m., Miller said.

Schwartz said she did not understand how the elections board could not have predicted the crowds, considering the historic nature of the election.

About 40 percent of registered voters cast ballots. Overwhelming support for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) helped spark the unusually high turnout, and he defeated rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) 3 to 1 in a sweep of all 142 precincts. In the Republican race, with a much smaller pool of voters and a lighter turnout of 21 percent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) won 68 percent of the vote.

Virginia election officials still do not know how many provisional ballots were cast, said Susan Pollard, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Board of Elections.

In Maryland, 28,952 provisional ballots were distributed from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., when polls were supposed to close, said Linda Lamone, administrator of the state elections board. Nearly 10,000 more provisional ballots were cast in the 90 minutes in which a judge ordered polls to remain open because of bad weather. "We didn't have a ballot shortage, but some came close," Lamone said.

The state, however, relies on electronic voting machines and uses paper ballots sparingly, she said. State law requires each precinct to have one electronic machine for every 200 voters, she said.

By comparison, the District has one electronic machine for each precinct and depends more heavily on paper ballots.

Miller said the number of ballots initially distributed was based on previous turnout and an increase in the use of electronic machines. She provided data showing that a total of 80,600 paper ballots were initially distributed to the 142 precincts but that 77 precincts needed additional ballots, requiring a total of 5,621 more than anticipated. Miller also explained that boxes, filled with ballots and other supplies, can only hold so much.

"Well, then, let's get a bigger box," Schwartz said.

Schwartz said the elections board should also consider getting a different type of ballot and a different type of sleeve, designed to give voters privacy. The ballots apparently did not fit in the sleeves and some ballots did not fit in the machines because they were not properly torn from their stubs. The stubs jammed some machines. Miller said the board would work to resolve the issues before the District's September primary for local offices.

First, they have to review those 10,000 special ballots.

As of Thursday night, they had examined 618, Miller said. William R. O'Field Jr., spokesman for the elections board, said in an interview that the law gives the board seven days after the election to review them and 10 days after the election to issue a final count. Voters who are disqualified will be notified and allowed to appeal in time for the Friday count, he said.

Staff writers Jerry Markon and John Wagner contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company