Election Officials Cope With High Early Voting Turnout

And the historic early turnout has already bogged down in some communities, offering what could be a warning for problems on Election Day.

Most of the early voting procedures in place for the 2004 election were adopted as a way to ease the Election Day crush at the polls that many analysts said contributed to the widely reported voting problems in 2000.

Unlike casting absentee ballots, early voters may simply show up to designated polling locations anytime after the established start date in their state. Absentee voters generally mail in their ballots and are usually required to provide a written explanation for why they won’t be able to go to the polls on Election Day.

Both parties have recognized the new voting patterns and have launched huge get-out-the-early-vote campaigns, converting old Election Day strategies to 14-day plans for getting voters to the polls.

“They can get partial counts and know not who has voted necessarily but know how many people have voted and get a rough idea of how much of their vote they’re pulling out in advance of Election Day,” the NewsHour’s Ray Suarez reported from Duval County, Florida on Oct. 18, the first day of early voting in Florida.

Suarez said the parties hope to be able to better allocate and target resources for getting out their remaining voters on Election Day.

“The earlier you vote the better. It will give them plenty of time to count your vote,” 2000 presidential Democratic candidate former Vice President Al Gore told a Democratic gathering in Broward County, Florida, scene of the chaotic recount that ended up denying the Democrat the presidency. “And it will give us plenty of time to do what Santa Claus does: Make a list and check it twice.”

Pinellas County Florida Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark told the St. Petersburg Times that 25 percent of total 2004 ballots may be cast before Nov. 2.

That high turnout, however, in states like Florida and Georgia is taxing early voting systems. Because election officials generally expect early voting turnout to be spread over several days, they have set up fewer polling locations than on Election Day. But a surprisingly large and concentrated turnout has meant long lines and some confusion.

Reporters in Florida have said the voting process is excruciatingly slow at some polling locations, where workers and voters alike are getting used to new procedures and equipment.

A Chicago Tribune reporter observing some South Florida polling places estimated as few as six votes per hour were being cast.

The Bradenton Herald reported that some early voters in Broward County, Florida gave up after waiting in line for three hours.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported wait times of nearly two hours for some polling locations in three Georgia counties — Gwinett, Cobb, and Clayton. The paper reported that the wait at some locations, however, was around 20 minutes.

A spokesman for the Georgia Secretary of State’s office said the state’s urban counties were being urged to add more polling places.

Early voting appears to have unfolded more smoothly in Colorado where election officials estimate that the estimated 135,000 voters who have already cast ballots waited in line for an average of 45 minutes. Officials have said that early voting combined with absentee ballots is sure to ease the load on Election Day.

“If it continues at this rate, we shouldn’t have crowded polls on Election Day because most of them will have voted early,” Faye Griffin, Jefferson County clerk, told the Denver Post. “It’s amazing. We think every day is Election Day.”

In Nevada balloting also appears to be running smoothly and turnout there appears to be leaning Democratic.

“In Clark, Washoe, Carson City and Douglas counties, with 91 percent of all Nevada voters, 168,703 people had voted through midday Monday. That included 73,538 Democrats and 70,637 Republicans. The rest are nonpartisans or splinter-party members,” Susan Voyles reported in Monday’s the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller told reporters that both early and absentee balloting have been at record levels and could total nearly 400,000 — roughly the same number he expects to show up at the polls on Election Day.