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The last ballot question: Why did they run out? BY C. DAVID KOTOK, Omaha World-Herald staff writer, November 3, 2004. Steve Lasko looked more bemused than angry when he finally cast his ballot Tuesday in northwest Omaha at 11:40 p.m. Kristin Schmidt, who had been waiting for three hours, watches the line of voters at Zion Lutheran Church in west Omaha on Tuesday evening. With the high voter turnout, the polling place there temporarily ran out of ballots. In casting the last vote in Nebraska, nearly four hours after the official 8 p.m. closing time, Lasko became the symbol of a confusing and frustrating night. Tuesday's turnout is expected to topple the statewide record of 744,548 voters in Nebraska in 1992 - when independent Ross Perot was the wild card in the race with Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush - but just barely. The final state number could be 100,000 short of Secretary of State John Gale's 870,000 pre-election estimate. In Douglas County, the turnout of nearly 207,000 people - about 20,000 more than four years ago - set a record. But it wasn't the sheer numbers that caused the problems, Douglas County Election Commissioner Carlos Castillo said. He had plenty of other excuses Wednesday for why too few ballots were printed to fill demand in several west Omaha polling places. Sarpy County also had lines and delays, but there were enough ballots for the record turnout because Election Commissioner Kay Forslund decided to print a ballot for every registered voter. At about 50 cents for every two-page ballot, Castillo said, it made little sense to print ballots for all 318,000 registered Douglas County voters. Castillo said the number of voters was almost exactly what he predicted. The problem, he said, was uneven voter participation. "We have 341 precincts, and the vast majority had no issues," Castillo said. When high turnout developed in west Omaha, new ballots were printed on the spot Tuesday at the election office. But the printing is a slow process, Castillo said, much more complex than running duplicates on a copy machine. "We didn't have a crystal ball to predict this would happen," Castillo said. His assumptions, however, were different from those made by Sarpy's Forslund: ? Castillo assumed the presidential race was subdued in Nebraska because President Bush was a sure winner here. Forslund believed the close presidential race nationally would stimulate voters in her rapidly growing county. ? Castillo accepted pre-election polls indicating that gambling plans would be soundly defeated and therefore wouldn't bring out voters. Forslund thought gambling would add to the voter interest. ? Castillo used historic trends to decide how many ballots to print. Forslund decided to disregard the past practice of printing enough ballots to cover 80 percent of the registered voters. Instead, she went with the full 100 percent. Even with enough ballots, long lines and delays would have been unavoidable in Douglas County, based on what happened in Sarpy County. Voters at three Sarpy polling place faced substantial waits, Forslund said. Those problems were most common in high-growth areas. For example, at the Millard Social Hall south of Interstate 80 on 144th Street, the number of registered voters swelled to 1,900 for this election. Officials try to keep the number of registered voters below 1,200, Forslund said. Even if county officials see the number of voters balloon, under state law they can't alter precinct maps between the primary and general elections. Those explanations were of little consolation to the voters at Zion Lutheran Church at 142nd and Ida Streets or Wheeler Elementary School in Millard. The Rev. Thomas Schmitt, pastor of Zion Lutheran, said the shortest wait all day was 45 minutes. "We knew we had an issue this morning at 8 o'clock when there was a line going down the steps here." At the line's peak, when the ballots ran out, Schmitt estimated that 500 to 600 people were waiting. Doug Roemmich, who waited four hours to vote, said election officials should have been prepared. "This area out here has exploded, and they argued they didn't know there would be this kind of turnout. I find it somewhat ironic that after the debacle of the 2000 election, this would happen," Roemmich said. "Here we are trying to sell democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan - and then to have to wait four hours in line to vote in Omaha, Nebraska, is just unbelievable." Tanya Clark arrived at the Millard school at 6:40 p.m. As she waited in line, the precinct ran out of ballots not once but twice. "Some people left, but a lot of people hung in there," Clark said. "I don't care if I had to wait until 11 o'clock, I would never not vote in a presidential election." "It's awful they didn't plan ahead for this," Eva Vachal said. "They knew this would be a high turnout." Next time, Vachal said, she will join the growing number of voters who use absentee ballots to avoid Election Day lines. The large turnout also resulted in many more provisional ballots being cast by people who said they were registered but did not show up on the polling books. Nearly 8,000 provisional ballots need to be counted in Douglas County, along with 3,000 absentee ballots. World-Herald staff writers Kevin Cole, Joseph Morton and Kristin Zagurski contributed to this report.

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