Voting machines in short supply
Big turnout blues? County officials hope adjustments minimize problems at precincts
By BRIAN FEAGANS
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 10/30/04
A surge in voter registrations since Gwinnett election officials allotted voting machines in July has left most county precincts with fewer of the units than the state recommends.
County officials say they'll make some last-minute adjustments to minimize problems. But having too few machines for the voters in a precinct could mean longer lines on Election Day.
Some voting delays are inevitable, said Barbara Luth, an elections associate in the Gwinnett elections office.
"We can't always anticipate everything," Luth said. "I think you'll have waits of at least an hour."
In the 2000 presidential election, the most recent election with voter turnouts near the levels expected Tuesday, Gwinnett precincts reported wait times of one to three hours.
New voting technology, uncertain turnout and varying peak times make it hard to predict where and when voters will encounter the longest lines this year. But comparing voter registration rolls to the number of machines assigned to each precinct provides one indicator.
Ideally, precincts have one machine for every 150 to 190 active voters, according to state officials and the vendor of the touch-screen units. Gwinnett's average is 216 voters per touch-screen machine. The only metro Atlanta county with a higher ratio was Clayton, with 236 active registered voters per machine.
Lynn Ledford, the county elections supervisor, said those numbers shouldn't be cause for alarm. The county had similar ratios in 2002, the first time touch-screen voting machines were used, and experienced no major problems, she said. Even so, Ledford and other observers are predicting heavy turnout this year because of the hotly contested presidential race.
Only 11 of Gwinnett's 148 precincts will be in the recommended range, under allotments determined by the county in July. Seven precincts were on track Friday to have at least 240 active voters per machine. They are precincts 5 (Baycreek A), 43 (Martins D), 60 (Lawrenceville D), 74 (Pinckneyville Q), 78 (Pinckneyville R), 111 (Duluth H) and 113 (Pinckneyville V).
The county divvied up 1,381 voting machines among the 148 precincts in July. But the number of registered voters has risen 11 percent, to 298,803, since then, with some precincts seeing jumps of roughly 20 percent.
Luth said the county will deploy 50 machines as emergency units to precincts with the greatest needs on Election Day. Another 27 machines are held in reserve to replace units that malfunction.
Those casting ballots shouldn't expect the 4-, 5- and 6-hour lines that greeted early voters last week, Luth said. Last week, poll workers had to sort through dozens of ballot options because voters from all precincts could participate. That step won't occur Tuesday because machines are programmed with the same ballot information at individual precincts, Luth said.
Not just machines, but the number of poll workers can affect the wait at precincts. Gwinnett's average staffing at each precinct is well within the recommended range.
Even so, plenty of voters fear long waits Tuesday.
Carol Lathe of Stone Mountain said that's why she chose to cast her ballot last week instead. She is scheduled to work the night shift at a hospital Election Day and didn't want to risk waiting for hours.
"I have to sleep sometime," she said.