County election chief says ballot shortages are ?inexcusable?
By PERRY SWANSON - THE GAZETTE
El Paso County?s top election official apologized Wednesday to those who waited up to several hours to vote after ballots ran short for Tuesday?s election.
Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink said he underestimated the number of ballots that would be needed. The election staff was overwhelmed Tuesday afternoon as voters surged to polling places and dozens of precincts reported running out of ballots.
?This is inexcusable for me,? Balink said. ?I?m not happy at all if people had to wait for ballots to show up.?
Still, Balink said no one was turned away at the polls, and anyone who waited for ballots to arrive was allowed to vote. He said everyone who checked in at polling places before they closed at 7 p.m. was given a slip of paper that verified they were eligible to vote.
Some people left without voting anyway, although Balink said he wouldn?t have numbers for several days.
?That?s their choice,? he said. ?Nobody was told there were no more ballots coming, but again, I can?t be apologetic enough that anybody was inconvenienced.?
One Peyton voter, Jeffery Thorpe, said he used a photocopied ballot after waiting nearly four hours when official ballots never arrived from the election office. Thorpe said close to 100 people were in line to vote in Peyton at one point, but up to half of them left without casting ballots.
?We were all frustrated. We didn?t like the fact of doing this hand-copied ballot. Because I don?t think it would hold up in court,? Thorpe said.
Balink guessed the ballot shortages affected 80 to 90 of the county?s 385 voting precincts. Many of the precincts are consolidated in 182 polling places around the county.
Some voters in Peyton, 24 miles east of Colorado Springs, did not vote until after 9 p.m., more than two hours after the polls closed.
Other voters called the El Paso County Election Office to complain Wednesday, including one man who told Balink he should resign from office. Election workers said they tried to explain the situation to each caller.
?We?re all beside ourselves. We were reacting as fast as we could to address the situation as soon as it was identified,? said Assistant Election Manager Susan Russo. ?We are as distressed by this as they are.?
The difficulties in El Paso County were the worst reported among other election glitches across Colorado.
Arapahoe County, which conducted an all-mail vote, reported long lines as residents showed up to get replacement ballots for those that did not arrive in the mail, the Colorado Secretary of State?s Office said. Vote-counting machines malfunctioned in Mineral and Conejos counties Tuesday. Mineral County election officials were unable to complete the unofficial count of votes until about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday; Conejos County?s totals weren?t ready Wednesday afternoon.
Balink said his office ordered printing of ballots based on voter turnout in previous elections and the number of people who voted early or with absentee ballots. By Monday, the early and absentee ballots amounted to about 36,000. Those two methods usually account for 40 percent to 45 percent of the total votes, so Balink projected an overall turnout of about 80,000 ballots, or about 30 percent of registered voters. That was roughly in line with the percentage that voted in the last off-year election in 2003.
The county turnout was 36 percent, compared with 46 percent turnout statewide.
The Election Office ordered 94,547 ballots to be printed for polling places, including 37 styles to account for the combinations of governments where each voter lives. That wasn?t nearly enough for the 80,673 people who voted at polling places, because customized ballots ran short in some places but were in surplus in others.
A few thousand more voters used provisional ballots.
Balink said election workers started reporting ballot shortages about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. During the next few hours, about 20 election workers and up to a dozen sheriff?s deputies fanned out to replenish supplies using absentee ballots that had been converted for use in polling places.
?The problem is sometimes they ran out before replacement ballots got there,? Balink said.
Russo said the election staff is studying what happened to learn how to avoid repeating mistakes in the next election.
Officials attempt to print enough ballots so no one runs short but few enough to avoid waste. In the November 2004 election, El Paso County printed about 580,000 ballots but ended up trashing about 350,000 that were unused.