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Voters are expected to turn out in droves for this year's presidential election, and that has many people worried about long lines. In Ohio, in 2004, some voters waited up to 10 hours to cast their ballots. Well, this year, officials are trying to alleviate some of the election day load, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: In Ohio four years ago, lines of voters snaked out of mini polling sites into the pouring rain. Volunteer Sue Willard was in Franklin County, which she complained didn't have enough equipment to handle a record number of people.
Ms. SUE WILLARD (Poll Station Volunteer): 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. So it's frustrating.
FESSLER: In other parts of the state, the waits were even longer, and 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. This year, election officials say they're trying to avoid a similar disaster.
(Soundbite of mailing machines)
FESSLER: 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.
Mr. MICHAEL STINZIANO (Director, Franklin County Board of Elections): The only guarantee we can make during this election season is, you will not have to wait in line if you vote by mail.
FESSLER: Michael Stinziano is the Democratic director of the Franklin County Board of Elections. He wants about a third of the county's voters to cast absentee ballots to help ease the crowds on November 4th.
Mr. STINZIANO: It's simple. It's easy. You can do it at your own time, at your own leisure, in the comfort of your own home. Everything is prepaid for you. You just have to request the ballot and then mail it back.
FESSLER: And he's being helped by the presidential campaigns, which are encouraging their supporters to vote absentee. Franklin County will also allow early in-person voting at a central site beginning September 30th. 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.
Mr. MATTHEW DAMSCHRODER (Election Deputy, Franklin County Board of Elections): Two of the key issues was the insufficient number of voting machines that we had at that time and also a very long ballot.
FESSLER: Matthew Damschroder was the county's Republican election director four years ago. Now, he's the deputy. He says machines used to be allocated according to the number of registered voters in a precinct. But that was a problem.
Mr. DAMSCHRODER: Ballot length in the city of Columbus was much larger and much longer than ballot length in the suburban portions of Franklin County.
FESSLER: So it took voters in Columbus more time to cast their ballots, which led to many of the lines. Now, Franklin is taking a novel approach, 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.
Ms. DEBBIE BARKSDALE (Ohio Voter Protection Advocate, The Advancement Project): What concerns me is that, even after the study, that they still anticipate long lines.
FESSLER: 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.
Ms. BARKSDALE: 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.
FESSLER: Her group wants the county to buy more machines. Michael Slater who heads Project Vote, a nonpartisan group that's helped to register over a million new voters this year, is also worried that election officials aren't taking into account large get-out-the-vote efforts.
Mr. MICHAEL SLATER (Head, Project Vote): We need election officials who are thinking through, where could turn out really spike that I'm not planning for?
FESSLER: Franklin County Election director Michael Stinziano says that's what they 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. Pam Fessler, NPR News.