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Local election boards confident that they're ready for a record voter turnout

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 8, 2008 - After Tricia Francis retired as a reading specialist in the Clayton School District last spring, she didn't have to wait long to find something useful to do with her time. A St. Louis County Elections Board request for poll workers turned out to be just the kind of volunteer work she felt comfortable doing.

"I thought of this as my civic duty," says Francis, who will be assigned to work in a precinct in West County. "The training has been very informative and has helped me to know what to expect."

With a potentially record-breaking turnout, poll workers like Francis will have plenty to do this Election Day. Ryan Hobart, deputy director of communications for the Missouri secretary of state, says the number of voter registrations continued to rise after the August primary. At that time, at least 220,000 new voters had been added to the rolls in Missouri, pushing the number of voters in the state to well over 4 million. He said the office had yet to release a turnout projection, but national projections predict a turnout of about 80 percent.

The potential tsunami of voters has led to many questions, the overarching one being: What are election authorities doing to ensure a smooth election -- both in terms of the number of voters expected and the integrity of the system?

On course for a Record Turnout

The biggest surprise in turnout projections comes from the St. Louis County Election Board. Its spokesperson, Richard Bauer, says that at least 693,000 people are registered, and that as many as 90 percent of them could vote. Bauer says the turnout could be the highest he's seen in 22 years of working for the Election Board. The current record is the 85 percent turnout in 1992, for the Clinton-Bush presidential race.

In St. Louis, nearly 200,000 people cast ballots in the August primary, says Gary Stoff, the GOP deputy director for the St. Louis Election Board. He says roughly 20,000 new names have been added to the voter rolls since then. The city's turnout is expected to mirror the national projections of 80 percent, officials say.

There are any number of explanations for the expected high turnout. One, of course, is the historic nature of the race: The country is going to elect either its first African-American president or first woman as vice president. Another explanation comes from Hobart, who says the turnout tends to be higher in completely open races, when voters are choosing a presidential candidate who isn't seeking re-election or who didn't first serve as vice president.

Smooth Election or Chaos?

The high turnout projections raised questions about whether election boards will be up to the task. FairVote, a nonpartisan advocacy group based in Takoma Park, MD, released in August a survey warning that some voters in Missouri and other states could face long lines at polling sites because local election boards might be unprepared to handle a potentially high turnout.

But state and local election officials say they have taken several steps to head off potential chaos. The first was to recruit more workers. Hobart says the agency was distributing about $2 million to help local election boards hire and train more poll workers. Entry level workers earn $100 for working on election day, plus $30 for training. Supervisors and assistants earn $130 for working on election day and $50 for training. The volunteers are expected to work from 5 a.m. to as late as 8 p.m.

Hobart says 3,000 people had signed up as volunteers on the secretary of state's website alone. Bauer adds that about 5,400 people, about 40 percent of them new volunteers, had signed up to work the polls in St. Louis County. The number includes about 1,000 are college students, he said.

"That's great because our poll workers are usually retirees," Bauer says. "But many of them are getting old, and we need to find people to replace them. This is a good time to encourage young people to get involved."

Although St. Louis County election officials are confident they will have enough workers to run a smooth Election Day operation, their counterparts in the city of St. Louis aren't taking any chances. The St. Louis Election Board hopes to exceed its goal of recruiting 1,600 poll workers.

"Some sign up with good intentions but can't do the training, so we have to recruit more people than we need," says Stoff. "Anybody we can recruit -- we'll find ways to utilize them."

Quicker, Easier Voting

Hobart says election boards are commited to helping people vote easily and quickly. He said boards should have enough workers available to make sure, for example, that those standing in line have the right documents to present. Sample ballots will be distributed to voters in line to help familiarize them with the ballot so they can cast their votes as quickly as possible. Sample ballots will be a real help in places like St. Louis County, where voters will face five countywide issues, as well as five state initiatives.

Confidence in machines

County election officials are also confident that the voting machines are tamper-proof, said Bauer. But he noted that the machines were safe only to the extent that officials did not allow anyone unguarded access to the machines. For that reason, no one can have access to the county's machines unless officials from both political parties also are present.

For example, outsiders were not allowed in the County Election Board room where voter activity -- from early voting to absentee balloting -- was taking place unless they were actual voters. Moreover, at all times, officials from both parties were present. In another step to guard against tampering, Bauer said votes were stored in rooms requiring two separate doors to enter, and that officials from each party must be present whenever someone entered the room.

Although Stoff, the St. Louis GOP election judge, says the city's optical scanners are tamper-proof, he says someone could break a machine by jamming the paper. Even that wouldn't necessarily stop the voting process, he says, because there is a second slot in which voters could insert their paper ballots, which then would have to be counted, presumably by hand.

Questions of Fraud in Kansas City

Stoff says the St. Louis board has not encountered instances of fraudulent or suspicious registration forms for this election cycle. Officials at the Election Board in Jackson County, which includes Kansas City, told the Associated Press last week that they had found about 100 duplicate election forms and about 280 more with nonexistent addresses. The forms were said to have been submitted by people working for ACORN -- the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

Last spring, eight ACORN workers in St. Louis and St. Louis County pleaded guilty of fraud for turning in false voter registration cards for the 2006 election. But Stoff says to make sure registration ran smoothly, the St. Louis board sat down with ACORN officials and those from another voter advocacy group called ProVote and explained what information the board would expect voter registration workers to submit.

"We weren't trying to tell them how to do their jobs," Stoff said, "but we wanted to make sure the basic information was filled out and was readable. So we really haven't had this kind of issue with ACORN or ProVote."

As for detecting fraud, Stoff says the board has a "pretty experienced crew, they're not handwriting experts, but they are good about detecting problems. If we find a bunch that looks like the same handwriting, we pull those and take a closer look at them."

Machine Breakdowns

In addition, Stoff adds, the board intends to se a larger than usual team of technicians to handle machine breakdowns. He also says roving deputies, riding in police patrol cars, will be able to get to sites quickly and help address problems.

Another way St. Louis hopes to head off delays, Stoff says, is by placing more machines at polling sites with the highest number of voters in previous elections. This might reduce the possibility of long lines at some polling places while voting machines sit unused at others, he says.

Finally, the board was setting up kiosks that can accommodate as many as 20 to 35 paper-ballot voters at once, Stoff says, noting that in previous elections, no more than a dozen people using paper ballots could vote in privacy at once.

Election board offices were experiencing quite a bit of activity ahead of last Wednesday's deadline for registering. At the county Election Board office in Maplewood on Tuesday, the front counter was lined with residents seeking either to register or to vote by absentee ballot. One indication of how busy the office had been that day was the fact that Bauer was just getting around to eating his lunch by late Tuesday afternoon.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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