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Ballot shortages plague Ohio primary

A federal judge in Ohio granted a request late Tuesday from Senator Barack Obama’s campaign to extend the voting hours in 21 precincts in Cleveland by an extra 90 minutes because of a lack of paper ballots.
/ Source: The New York Times

A federal judge in Ohio granted a request late Tuesday from Senator Barack Obama’s campaign to extend the voting hours in 21 precincts in Cleveland by an extra 90 minutes because of a lack of paper ballots.

After a recent state review of touch-screen machines that raised concern about them, paper ballots were made available at all precincts for those voters who wanted to use them. Many more voters took advantage of the option than officials had predicted. The shortages of ballots were also caused by an unusually heavy turnout, officials said.

But the order from the judge, Solomon Oliver, came after those precincts had already closed. Ohio’s secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner, said officials were not sure how to reopen them.

The judge denied a similar request for other precincts in Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, and for all precincts in Franklin County, where the capital, Columbus, is located.

Heavy rain, sleet and ice forced at least 10 precincts to request permission to move, yet the weather did not decrease turnout statewide. Voting officials predicted that turnout would exceed 50 percent, which, they said, was at least 10 percent more than the turnout in the past two presidential primaries.

The number of requests for absentee ballots more than tripled when compared with the May 2007 primary, to roughly 187,000, according to election officials.

Slow counting
The counting of ballots promised to be slow in part because of the switch away from touch-screen machines and toward paper ballots.

In Texas, where voters faced clear skies, turnout was projected to be above 26 percent. More than three million voters went to the polls, according to state election officials. About 1.2 million Texans in the state’s 15 most populous counties already took part in early voting, four times the previous high set in 2000.

Ohio has experience with counting delays. In the 2004 general election, voters waited more than a month for final results, and in the 2006 primary, when absentee ballots had to be counted by hand, the tally took over five days.

A spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, Jeff Ortega, said that while there were many reasons counting might be delayed, “Ultimately, accuracy is paramount.”

His office also wants the more than 50 counties that are still using touch-screen machines to switch to optical scanners by the November election.

The campaigns of the Democratic rivals — Mr. Obama, of Illinois, and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York — each complained about irregularities at the polls.

Mr. Obama’s camp said that voter identification requirements were being mishandled at some Ohio precincts, causing some voters to be turned away.

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign complained of “inappropriate behavior” from some Obama workers, who they said were entering polling places as monitors without being authorized as such.

Ms. Brunner’s office issued an e-mail alert to clarify the rules to all election officials. The message instructed them that a letter signed by Mr. Obama’s campaign director in Ohio authorizing the letter-bearer to serve as a legal poll monitor did not qualify and was “not legally sufficient on its own to allow someone to gain access to polling places.”

To be allowed access to a polling location, an observer must be duly appointed before the election as an official observer and have a certificate.

Minor problems were reported with voting itself. Most did not involve worker or machine error.

Of the more than 1,200 calls received by a free hot line run by Election Protection Coalition, most were from voters who wanted to find out their polling location or who were confused about registration requirements.

Voters turned away
Jonah Goldberg, a lawyer with the coalition, said the polling place at the Orchard Elementary School ran out of ballots by 5:30 p.m. and poll workers started handing ballots from another district that included candidates in an entirely different Congressional race.

Various precincts in Sandusky County ran out of ballots, and about 300 to 400 voters were turned away. All polling places stayed open there stayed until 9 p.m., Ms. Brunner said, adding that the ballot printing devices in the county elections office broke down, so new ones could not be supplied.

In Cleveland, some voters removed stubs that were meant for poll-worker handling. Election officials said all the ballots would be counted even if the stubs were removed.

A bomb threat at one school in Madison closed its polling place for an hour. A power failure at a polling place in Lake County was taken in stride, as poll workers ran extension cords from a nearby building and used flashlights to usher voters along.

Mr. Ortega, the spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, said the reason for the increased absentee balloting was that more voters had become acquainted with a 2005 law that eliminated restrictions that previously required an excuse, like being ill, for people to be permitted to cast an absentee vote.

In Cuyahoga County, the secretary of state decided to count the ballots at a central location. The county has had a long history of voting scandals, including the conviction of several election workers on tampering charges after the 2004 presidential election as well as lines hours long to vote that year.

Voting experts have criticized the decision because it does not permit voters to run their ballots through a scanner before handing them in. They say this can be an important opportunity for voters to catch mistakes.

Bob Driehaus contributed reporting from Cincinnati.