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Absentee ballot snafu boosts costs
MonroeNews.com. October 28, 2006. By Charles Slat

Jessie T. Joyner of Monroe already has voted twice in this year's general election.

"The first time, I think I had it right," said the Monroe resident while lunching at the Frenchtown Senior Citizen Center Tuesday.

So did the thousands of other Monroe County voters who typically vote by absentee ballot.

But the state got it wrong.

Due to a state ballot printing error, all absentee voters are being urged to vote again to correct a problem that is causing confusion, raising suspicions, costing taxpayer dollars and ultimately will delay final totals on election night.

"It's really been a nightmare for us," said Charles Evans, City of Monroe clerk-treasurer, whose staff already has worked significant overtime hours preparing and mailing a second batch of absentee ballots to voters. "We're answering phone calls like crazy."

No one's sure how it happened, but ballots supplied by the state to Monroe County had misaligned party titles and fill-in ovals in a section that allows voting by straight party ticket. Some officials were concerned that the misalignment would confuse voters and cause some to unintentionally vote straight party - for the wrong party. But the problem didn't become an issue until after the ballots were mailed out and many filled out and returned by citizens.

Mr. Joyner had filled out and returned his. Then he got a second one in the mail. "I mailed it today," he said proudly.

Most elections officials hope others will follow his example. If they don't, elections officials in individual communities - under the watchful eyes of Democratic and Republican representatives - will have to open the ballots voters returned before the printing error was found and replicate the votes by filling out the ovals on new corrected ballots.

That's because the old ballots no longer will be able to be read by the computerized vote-tallying machines. Now, only the new absentee ballots have coding that the machines can read.

"We know there's going to be a significant number of people who didn't redo their ballots," said Robert Stockman, Bedford Township clerk.

He said the snafu has raised a lot of questions and prompted hundreds of phone calls from confused voters.

Some suggest that the cure for the problem was worse than the illness. "It's created a lot of havoc for a little bit of nothing," said Geri Allen, Monroe County Clerk/Register of Deeds.

She said the county spent about $85,000 on absentee voting supplies, postage and processing two years ago. "You may have to add $40,000 to that" due to the ballot snafu this year, she said.

Mr. Evans, whose staff worked through the recent weekend to get new ballots sent out, is among those who expect the state to pick up the tab.

"I'm telling you right up front, I can't afford it," he said. "Our budgets are stretched to the max. Council will have to appropriate more from the contingency fund."

He hopes most absentee voters will return the new ballots they received even if they already voted using the old ballots. "It will save us work after the election," he said.

He said he thinks the majority will use the new ballots, but some won't. "We've heard a lot of people say I'm not re-voting or is this some kind of a scam to get a certain candidate a lot more votes?"

Meanwhile, most clerks are preparing for a long election night because the process of replicating the absentee ballots by clerical staff can't start until after the polls close. And, said Mr. Evans, "there's huge interest in this election."

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