Election offices were flooded with new voters in a dozen states Monday as registration deadlines offered a glimpse of what the nation might see a month from now.
Many officials reported record numbers of new voters, some said they were overwhelmed, and allegations were already flying about fraud and the disqualification of some voters’ applications.
“They’re coming in, in buckets,” said Pamela Swafford, deputy director of Ohio’s Hamilton County board of elections. By Monday morning, the county that includes Cincinnati had 64,045 new voter registrations on hand, more than twice the 29,178 it received four years ago.
Across Georgia’s counties, Colorado’s booming suburbs and in Midwestern cities, local officials were deluged.
Traffic jammed the parking lot at New Jersey’s Burlington County government building. In Ocean County, phones rang continuously. The day for the office operator: “Good morning, Board of Elections, please hold; Good morning, Board of Elections, please hold; Good morning, Board of Elections, this is Barbara, how can I help you?”
Residents filling out forms stood after all the chairs were filled, and then waited in line to drop off the forms.
“I think it’s important to help decide who runs this country,” said Janis Britting of Toms River, N.J., who recently moved from another part of the state. She registered as a Democrat, but said she was still undecided between President Bush and Democrat John Kerry.
A complete accounting of the registration figures across each state, let alone the country, won’t be finished for several weeks, as officials continue to accept postmarked registration forms. Other states’ deadlines fall later this week and month.
“If you walk into our mail room, we have stacks and stacks of new forms coming in,” said Kara Sinkule, spokeswoman for Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who oversees elections. “It’s a great problem to have.”
Her state is on pace to see a 50 percent increase in new voters for this presidential election compared to 2000. In the past year, 371,376 new voters registered, with 87,110 new voters in September alone. And the surge grew even bigger in the first few days of October.
Both the Democrats and the Republicans have poured resources into registering voters, spurred by the near deadlock of the 2000 presidential race and polls that predict another tight election this year.
Not everything has gone smoothly.
In Ohio, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell first ordered local election officials to reject registration cards that weren’t on heavy-stock paper, then backed off after a burst of criticism. In Florida, critics are questioning a state order that new citizens who failed to check a box testifying to their citizenship should be rejected.
There also are investigations into allegations of fraudulent applications in Michigan, Florida and Ohio, a lawsuit arguing that voter-drive groups were illegally denied the right to register voters in Wyoming, and claims that completed GOP voter registration forms were stolen from a nonpartisan vote-gathering group’s headquarters.
“It just seems odd that there would be so many obstacles to something as basic as facilitating someone’s right to vote,” said Jorge Mursuli, national director of Mi Familia Vota, a voter-registration effort aimed at Hispanics. He’s been trying to make sure voters who didn’t fill out forms completely are notified so they can fix it.
Other questions arise over whether new voters will actually turn up on Election Day; many of the nonpartisan and partisan groups credited with driving up the numbers say they will keep working to contact voters and nudge them to the ballot box next month.
Others speculate on the impact on the presidential race, and whether more Democrats are registering than Republicans, as some evidence indicates.
Pennsylvania’s suburban Montgomery County, the state’s largest Republican-leaning county, saw a bigger surge than the past two elections, with three Democrats registering for every two Republicans, said Joseph R. Passarella, the county’s director of voter services. An analysis by the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal found that registration was up higher in that state’s traditionally Democratic counties, and not as high in counties that usually vote GOP.
Either way, many officials are just plain swamped.
Denver hired 14 people to work full-time just to process applications, coming in at up to 2,000 per day, Election Commission spokesman Alan McBeth said. That’s never happened before.
Joanne Nyikita, superintendent of elections in Burlington County, N.J., said that by last Tuesday she counted twice as many new applicants as 2000. Since then, she’s been too busy to count. Her staff is working overtime, and will continue like that to finish by Oct. 13, when voter registration books go to press.
“Presidential (elections) are always busy — but it was never before like this,” Nyikita said. “We can barely keep up with opening the mail.”