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High Turnout, New Procedures May Mean an Election Day Mess

In 2004, voters in Columbus, Ohio, waited in long lines to cast ballots. This year, election officials there have added poll workers and voting machines.
In 2004, voters in Columbus, Ohio, waited in long lines to cast ballots. This year, election officials there have added poll workers and voting machines. (By Laura Rauch -- Associated Press)

In Worcester, Mass., local election officials are trying to prepare for the bigger turnout by locating some polling places in four supermarkets, which have plenty of parking and are accessible to disabled voters.

But David Moon, program director for FairVote, a voting advocacy group that is surveying local operations, said that "very few county officials" in swing states "are creating rational plans" to put machines where they are most needed. As a result, he said, frustrated voters stuck in long lines could give up and go home without casting ballots -- the same thing that happened four years ago in many states.

The process could be complicated by the statewide registration databases, which have been coming online one by one since 2004. For 31 states, Nov. 4 will be the first test of the systems with the bigger turnout of a presidential election.

States have taken a variety of positions on what should be considered a match when it comes to nicknames, hyphenated names and married names. If the information doesn't match, voters can cast provisional ballots, but whether those will count in final tallies depends on local rules, which vary widely.

"If you have small glitches multiplied by thousands of voters, that means big problems that cost eligible voters their voice," said Daniel P. Tokaji, an election law specialist at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. The problems could be more acute with hyphenated Hispanic names or transposed Asian surnames, he said, "leaving certain groups disproportionately affected."

Registration rules have prompted bitter complaints and lawsuits in Missouri, New Mexico and other states, and could lead to challenges after the votes are counted. Voting rights advocates have protested an Arizona requirement that residents show proof of citizenship to register, which has been upheld by a federal judge.

Advocates also worry that the back-and-forth of legislative debates and court rulings on voter identification in numerous states could further confound poll workers, disenfranchising some voters.

As they approach November, some local officials say they have addressed problems that surfaced in this year's presidential primaries.

Touchscreen machines still will be in place in Horry County, S.C., which includes Myrtle Beach, but elections director Sandy Martin said she will avoid the programming error that forced the county to use backup paper ballots -- some votes were cast on yellow legal pads -- and delayed results for a day.

"Oh, my gosh, it was awful," Martin said.

In Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco, registrar Stephen Weir said he too learned from the primary. A fold in the absentee ballots forced him to spend nearly two weeks ironing, by hand, about 16,000 ballots to make them flat enough to feed into vote-counting machines.

"There were two lessons learned," he said. "Dump the fold. And the silk setting worked great."

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