Voter turnout could affect wait time at polling places

Monday, October 27, 2008 | 10:37 p.m. CDT; updated 9:30 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 29, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Three out of four Missourians registered to vote will cast a ballot Nov. 4, according to an estimate from the secretary of state's office, which has some groups worried about how busy polling places could be on Election Day.

Voter turnout could be as high as 76 percent, an 11 percent increase from 2004, according to the secretary of state's office. In 2004, 65 percent of registered Missouri voters cast a ballot. The national average was 64 percent.

If the prediction is met, more than 3.2 million Missourians will cast a ballot. That number is based on a compilation of local turnout estimates submitted by election authorities around the state. In Boone County, the release states that an estimated 73 percent of the 121,319 registered voters could show up to the polls.

Denise Lieberman, a civil rights attorney with the Advancement Project and the former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in eastern Missouri, said her organization is concerned that the increase in estimated voter numbers may mean that some polling places run out of paper ballots. The number of ballots printed is determined by turnout numbers from 2004. Lieberman said that some polling places determine the number of paper ballots to have on hand by how many people will vote electronically.

The Advancement Project is a nonprofit, grass-roots action group started by civil rights lawyers in 1998 that uses law and public policy to advocate for racial and social equality. Lieberman  said she has been analyzing potential voter problems in Missouri for the last two years.

"Communities who didn't vote in the 2004 election are galvanized now," Lieberman said. "I suspect a campus like in Boone County is going to be an example of that issue."

Of the 4.2 million registered voters, 8 percent are registered for the first time. Robin Carnahan, the secretary of state, stated in the release that 150,000 voters, almost half of newly registered voters, are 18 to 24 years old.

Lieberman said Boone County does not have a history of voter problems, but the increased number of students voting could "cause a hiccup" on Election Day.

Boone County has several polling locations at area universities and colleges. Lieberman said this may help alleviate problems with student voters.

Carnahan said it remains to be seen if the young people who registered to vote turn out on Election Day.

"It's a bigger number than we've seen in the past in Missouri. You know, traditionally they talk about how young people don't go out to vote, so it will be just interesting to see whether this time that is proven wrong and that young people decide it's their futures at stake and they want to have their voice heard in it," Carnahan said.

Lieberman said determining the number of paper ballots to print based on 2004 numbers could be a problem because this is the first presidential election when Missourians no longer have the option of voting for all candidates of a party at one time. The Missouri legislature did away with straight-ticket voting in 2006.

"That means it's going to take people longer to get through because they can't just hit one button and be done," Lieberman said. "If it takes longer to cast a ballot than (polling places) estimate, then more people would have to fill out a paper ballot, and then they could run out of ballots."

Carnahan said getting rid of straight-ticket voting may cause longer lines on Election Day because in 2004 more than 40 percent of voters cast their ballot that way.

"That's over a million people who did it that way, so I was against taking away that convenience. I do think the result of it will be longer lines on election day, but we'll get through it and hopefully have a good election," Carnahan said.

The secretary of state's office spokesman Ryan Hobart said the state has done a lot to help local election officials keep lines short on Election Day. He said there has been an additional $2 million in grant funding offered to counties to hire more poll workers.

Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren said she has 900 volunteers and an additional 150 people she could place if necessary. Noren said the community has been very forthcoming in volunteering to help on Election Day.

"We've had more poll people than we've ever had before," Noren said.

Lieberman said printing more ballots is an easy fix that can be done before the election.

In 2006, some counties ran out of paper ballots, a situation Carnahan said she has worked the last two years to try to avoid.

"That's unacceptable, and I've talked a lot about how they need to be overprepared for this Election Day," Carnahan said. "I have talked about it and done all I can to encourage people to get enough paper ballots, and I'm confident that they'll do that."


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