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St. Louis County Election Officials To 'Reassess' After Paper Ballot Shortage Causes Delays

Stock photo of paper ballot

(Updated 1:45 a.m., Wed, Nov. 5)

St. Louis County election officials are considering changes in how many paper ballots to print and how to train polling place staff for the next election cycle, said Democratic director of elections Rita Days.

The reassessment comes after an unexpected demand for paper ballots caused a shortage at about 95 polling places throughout the county Tuesday. That's more than 20 percent of the county's 444 balloting sites.

Some polling places reported being out of paper ballots for several hours, delaying some St. Louis County residents from voting. Days said the last person cast a vote using a paper ballot at around 8 p.m., an hour after polls closed. Under state law, anyone in line at 7 p.m. is still allowed to vote.

"I think that for the most part the election went pretty well," Days said. "We are going to have to reassess the number of paper ballots that we use. I'm of the opinion now that we should have more and perhaps have some waste. Having people wait for paper ballots is not acceptable at this point to me." 

Days said the shortage prompted her office to create close to 4,000 more paper ballots, in addition to the 100,000 already printed. They were sent to polling places in north and west St. Louis County, in particular. 

But Days said while the wait times for voters weren't "inordinately long," election officials struggled to get the replacement ballots to voters quickly.

"One of the challenges was the polling place supervisors did not give us enough time before they ran out," she said. "Many of them get a little nervous, they're not sure when they should call, or how should call, but that's something in training we're going to have to address next election."

In St. Louis County, voters can choose electronic voting machines or paper ballots, which are scanned by a special machine. Days said the county Election Board had expected about 15 percent of the voters to request paper ballots, based on the usage in the last major off-year election in 2010. But it turned out that a higher percentage asked for them.

One of the reasons, according to some voters, was the unexpected long lines at many polling places to use the electronic voting machines. That prompted some harried voters to ask for paper ballots instead, since traditionally there have been few lines for the cubicles set up for people who opt for paper ballots.

Days also said some candidates reportedly were suggesting that voters use paper ballots, which may have contributed to the demand. 

Based on this election's turnout, Days said county election officials will make sure to print more paper ballots for future high-turnout elections, such as the 2016 presidential contest.
“This will set a precedent,’’ Days said.

Though the paper shortage was the biggest unexpected problem on Election Day, Days said there were a couple of other issues with polling place workers.
Days said workers at one site were "a little overzealous" and wrongly blocked journalists from entering the location to report on the delays. She said she called that polling place to correct the issue.
"Reporters are actually allowed in our polling places; there is not a prohibition against that," she said. "We do want the press there to have opportunity to see what’s going on in our polling places."
Additionally, there were other occasional reports that some election judges were asking would-be voters for photo identification or two forms of ID, which are not required in Missouri. The state does require identification at the polls, but they do not have to include photos. The state has a list of acceptable identification, which includes utility bills, bank statements, student IDs and driver's licenses.

Days said her office has sought to track down and correct such election judges when alerted that they are wrongly imposing such requirements.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.