Voters shut out in Marion County
In a chaotic day, 5 precinets fail to open; 45 others open late
By Robert King
Beth White's first Election Day as Marion County clerk started going downhill long before the sun rose, when 150 precinct inspectors the folks in charge of the polls never showed up to collect ballots and voter lists.
TROUBLE AT THE POLLS: Technicians from the Marion County clerk's office pull materials from election boxes more than three hours after Precinct 71 was supposed to open at Geist Christian Church. No inspector showed up to open the poll there. - Charlie Nye / The Star
HOW POLLS WORK
Five poll workers are supposed to spend a 13-hour day at each precinct, trying to ensure that democracy works at its most crucial and fundamental level: the voting booth.
Here's a look at who the poll workers are, what they do and what they make:
• Inspector (one) The executives in charge of the precincts, inspectors set up and close the precincts. They are recruited by the Marion County Election Board. Pay for the day: $110. In a pinch, they can run a precinct by themselves.
• Judges (two) Appointed by the political parties (one from each), the judges help disabled people vote and have the authority to check voter identification. Pay for the day: $70. Some were promoted Tuesday to be inspectors when the appointed inspectors didn't show.
• Clerks (two) Appointed by the political parties (one from each), the clerks get voters to sign the poll book, then initial and issue the ballots. Pay for the day: $70. Some were promoted to be inspectors Tuesday.
These five Marion County voting precincts never opened Tuesday because of no-shows by voting inspectors.
•Pike 57, 7221 W. 46th St.
•Ward 14, Precinct 5 School 47, 777 South White River Parkway, West Drive.
•Ward 16, Precinct 4 Indianapolis Fire Department Station 3, 1136 Prospect Road.
•Ward 9, Precinct 2 Department of Public Works Building, 3915 E. 21st St.
•Wayne 49 Jameson Camp, 2001 S. Bridgeport Road.
Source: Marion County clerk's office
But by the end of perhaps the most chaotic, confused and bumbling election in Marion County's history, things got so bad that questions were raised about whether White should resign and whether major election reform is needed to prevent another debacle.
The problems were countywide and profound.
Five of the county's 917 precincts never opened.
At least 45 more opened late.
Ballots and precinct voting lists were shipped in several cases to the wrong voting location, forcing election officials to print new ones, some as late as 4 p.m. 10 hours into the 12-hour voting day.
Poll clerks and poll judges with no inspector training were deputized on the spot to fill in for the 150 missing inspectors.
In some cases where both poll workers and voting materials were present, voting machines couldn't be turned on because poll workers had been given the wrong keys.
Bobbie Nichols' experience at the Hawthorne Community Center on the Westside seemed to capture the spirit of the day, when he showed up to vote just after noon only to find the voting machines untouched and no sign of an election.
"I almost thought I had the wrong day," Nichols said.
Republicans held the clerk's post for almost 30 uninterrupted years until voters ed White, a Democrat, in November. So Republican leaders, who have spent years watching GOP clerks get blistered for smaller gaffes, teed off on White.
"It was very easy for them to throw stones when they were on the outside. She learned today that governing is very hard, and clearly she's not up to the task," said Marion County GOP Chairman Tom John. He said White "showed a complete lack of leadership and poor planning" and should have seen warning signs earlier.
Asked whether White should resign, John said: "I think she should."
White and Democratic Party Chairman Michael O'Connor made no excuses.
At a midmorning news conference, White apologized repeatedly and said she knew some people who wanted to vote but couldn't. Her biggest failure, she said, was not having backups ready in the event that poll inspectors were no-shows. Asked how she would respond to Republican critics who were by then calling her incompetent, White said she would simply try to do better.
"I take responsibility for what happened. If anybody wants to call me incompetent, then that is their business," she said. "I am going to spend the rest of my time between now and November figuring out how this is not going to happen again."
She has no plans to resign.
O'Connor said he saw no reason for White to resign and that she could fix the problems in time for the general election. But he said the Republicans were justified in their strong reaction to the problems.
"I live in a grown-up world," he said. "I think that is fair criticism."
The first clue that trouble was afoot came around 7 p.m. Monday, White said, when her office held a last-minute opportunity for poll inspectors to pick up the boxes of ballots and voting lists needed for their precincts. By night's end, there were still 150 unclaimed boxes.
White and her staff worked through the night, without sleep, to come up with another plan, she said. At 4 a.m., she sent her workers out with dozens of the boxes in hand for delivery to the precincts.
Meanwhile, she tried to persuade various poll workers, whose job is to sign in voters, and judges, whose duty is to aid the disabled and raise voter-identification questions when necessary, to accept the role of inspector, who has ultimate responsibility for opening and closing the precincts.
Many poll workers stepped up. The problem was that in some cases, her staffers delivered the ballots and lists of voters entitled to use them to the wrong precincts.
"It was more of a human error compounding what was already a frustrating situation," she said.
The problems were bad enough that White considered, but opted against, seeking a court order to extend voting hours. She said the logistics for such an issue tired workers who couldn't stay late and reprogramming machines to operate past 6 p.m. were too much.
John said he knew of only one election do-over in Indiana, when the Supreme Court ordered a new vote in East Chicago after evidence of fraud. He said it is possible here that a candidate in a close race might legally challenge the results if the irregularities appear to have affected the outcome. In any case, he wants an investigation into what went wrong.
The day's problems were such that some suggested that major reforms were needed. Chairmen from both parties said reducing the number of precincts and thus the needed workers might help. And neither would rule out exploring voting centers, which would centralize the polling places even more.
Asked whether political parties need to be removed from poll staffing decisions, White said she would be "all ears" if the legislature wanted to change things. Above all, White's long day seemed to give her a new understanding of the gravity of her responsibility.
"I think what is clear," she told reporters midmorning, "is that I have to do better, that my preparation and my work to get ready for this election was not sufficient. And I have to take full responsibility for that."
Recent glitches during elections
Election troubles are nothing new for Marion County. Here's a look:
• November 2006: More than 200 polling places in Marion County got off to a rocky start when poll workers couldn't immediately get electronic machines to work properly. Vote counting was delayed because of a mistake in preparation of voting machines made by the company that supplied them. The programming error told the machines the election was supposed to end at 8 p.m. instead of 6 p.m.
• May 2006: Twelve poll inspectors appointed by the Republican Party failed to pick up voting materials from the Marion County clerk's office the night before the election. In turn, some voting sites didn't open on time. Some election workers mistakenly provided some voters with two ballots for some School Board races.
• November 2004: Marion County election workers mistakenly d more than 3,300 voter registrations of people thought to be dead. About 300 people were allowed to cast votes after election officials realized they had wrongly been listed as deceased. Hundreds of other Marion County residents were left off the voter list because the registration forms used to sign them up were outdated. The Voter Registration Board later decided to accept the registrations, but not in time to include the names in the poll books sent to the precincts. People left off the rolls were able to vote after election workers consulted a separate list to make sure they were registered.
• May 2004: Marion County election officials called for an overhaul of training and poll procedures after some polling places ran out of ballots. Because of high voter turnout for competitive races, 60 precincts requested more ballots. That forced voters to leave without voting or to wait to cast their votes. Election officials also found some uncounted absentee ballots. They decided not to include those newly found ballots in results because they couldn't be sure they hadn't already been counted.
• November 2003: Despite a new, $11.1 million optical-scan voting system, there still was trouble counting ballots. It took six weeks after the election for results to be tallied and for Democrats to officially win control of the City-County Council. Also, machine trouble delayed the counting of nearly 10,000 absentee ballots for days.
Source: Star library research