To Avoid Long Lines, Ohio Officials Say Vote By Mail

Ohio election workers i

Election workers sort through ballots at the Hamilton County Board of Elections on Nov. 2, 2004, in Cincinnati. Mike Simons/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mike Simons/Getty Images
Ohio election workers

Election workers sort through ballots at the Hamilton County Board of Elections on Nov. 2, 2004, in Cincinnati.

Mike Simons/Getty Images
election worker in Ohio i

An elections board worker places ballots in a card reading machine to count the votes on Nov. 2, 2004, in Cleveland. Michael Williams/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Williams/Getty Images
election worker in Ohio

An elections board worker places ballots in a card reading machine to count the votes on Nov. 2, 2004, in Cleveland.

Michael Williams/Getty Images

Voters are expected to turn out in droves for this year's election, and that has many people worried about long lines.

In the key battleground state of Ohio in 2004, some voters waited up to 10 hours to cast their ballots. This year, officials are trying to alleviate some of the Election Day load by encouraging some residents to vote early by mail.

Mostly, voting officials want to eliminate the scene that occurred four years ago, when lines of voters snaked out of many polling sites into the pouring rain.

That day, volunteer Sue Willard was in Franklin County, which she complained didn't have enough equipment to handle a record number of people.

"They're having to wait three hours, because we're at a polling place in the inner city of Columbus with three machines for the entire polling place," she said that day. "So it's frustrating."

In other parts of the state, the waits were even longer. No one knows how many voters got discouraged and did not vote at all. The worst problems were in urban areas, which led to accusations that African-American voters suffered the most.

Absentee Ballots As The Answer

This year, election officials say they're trying to avoid a similar disaster.

Last week, mailing machines in Ohio ran almost nonstop — folding hundreds of thousands of absentee ballot request forms and stuffing them into envelopes.

The forms have been sent to every single registered voter in Franklin County, and about 20 other counties. Officials hope voters will take advantage of a new state law that allows anyone to vote early; they no longer need an excuse, such as being out of town on Election Day.

Michael Stinziano is the Democratic director of the Franklin County Board of Elections. He wants about one-third of the county's voters to cast absentee ballots, to ease the crowds on Nov. 4.

"It's simple. It's easy," Stinziano said. "You can do it at your own time, at your own leisure, in the comfort of your own home. Everything is prepaid for. You just have to request a ballot and then mail it back."

Some Polling Sites Open As Early As Late September

Franklin County will allow early in-person voting at a central site beginning Sept. 30. The site will be open seven days a week, and the county hopes to have almost twice as many voting machines as it did four years ago.

Even so, the prospect of long lines remains. The county recently hired some waiting-line experts to look at what went wrong in 2004 and how to fix it.

"Two of the key issues were the insufficient number of voting machines that we had at the time, and also a very long ballot," says Matthew Damschroder, who was the county's Republican election director in 2004 and who is now serving as the deputy.

He says machines used to be allocated according to the number of registered voters in a precinct, but that was a problem. "Ballot length in the city of Columbus was much larger and much longer than ballot length in the suburban portions of Franklin County," he says.

Now, Franklin County is taking a novel approach: It is factoring in ballot length in the formula it uses to allocate machines, because once again, the city of Columbus has a much longer ballot. But there's still bad news.

Debbie Barksdale is with the nonpartisan voter advocacy group the Advancement Project. She notes that under the new plan, average wait times are still projected to be more than an hour in many precincts — and that's assuming a relatively modest turnout, which no one really expects.

Barksdale's group is especially worried about first-time voters, who often need more time at the polls.

"Looking back historically," she says, "and looking at the voter registration drives that are going on right now and where they're concentrating their efforts, I would say that more than likely, the increase in the first-time voters would be in the inner-city and college students."

Her group wants the county to buy more machines.

Michael Slater, who heads Project Vote, a nonpartisan group that's helped to register more than a million new voters this year, also worries that election officials are not taking into account large get-out-the-vote efforts.

"We need election officials who are thinking through, 'Where could turnout really spike that I'm not planning for?'" Slater says.

Stinziano says that's what officials are trying to do, but that there's only so much they can predict. And he repeats: The only guarantee against waiting in line is to vote by mail.

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