World and Nation

States Prepare to Test New Voting Systems, Ballot-Counting Tactics

After California ordered a switch to paper ballots from touch-screen voting machines for Tuesday’s primary, election officials in 7,200-square-mile Riverside County had to decide the best way to pick up the ballots so they could be centrally counted on time: helicopter or truck?

They chose land rather than air, because the last time the helicopter had been grounded by fog. But then they encountered another problem: 60,000 absentee ballots had begun to fall apart at the fold lines.

“They may be high-tech or they could be low-tech, but the problems are always there,” said Barbara Dunmore, the county registrar of voters.

As voters in 23 states head to polls or caucuses on Tuesday to pick their party’s presidential candidate, local election officials around the country are bracing for a long, exhausting night and an array of unpredictable factors that might prevent some states from reporting final tallies until early Wednesday. Although no one is predicting serious problems, many voting officials acknowledge that they could happen.

Several states are expecting a higher than usual turnout, which could increase bottlenecks in precincts with too few voting machines. The growing popularity of absentee voting is also contributing to possible delays because the ballots take more time to process and often arrive at the last minute.

Voting experts have raised concerns about the six states using paperless touch-screen machines, which could make recounts impossible in close races or cases of computer failure. And the rush by states to move up their caucus and primary dates has shortened the amount of time voting officials have to hire and train poll workers.

In California, which has the highest number of delegates, election officials in the 20 counties without paper-trail machines were told by the state in August to switch back to paper ballots. But those ballots will have to be counted at a central location using the same scanners that normally count the absentee votes, because the counties were not able to acquire enough machines to perform tallies at individual polling places.

About half of California voters are expected to vote by mail, and many of them, voting officials say, have waited until the last moment to send their ballots. These ballots take longer to process than those cast on Tuesday because workers must open the envelopes, separate the contents and check for signatures, even before the ballot is fed into the counting machine.

Thirty-four states, including 15 of those with votes Tuesday, now make it easier to vote early or absentee, dropping a requirement that such voters explain themselves. Several of these states may face delays in counting, according to the Early Voting Information Center, a research group based at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

Georgia adopted no-excuse absentee voting in 2005 and, like Arizona and California, has seen a recent increase in the number of absentee voters, said Paul Gronke, a political science professor at Reed.

“If there is a sudden and unexpected surge in absentee ballots and election officials have not prepared, we could see serious delays in tallies,” Gronke said.