Can N.C. handle 4.5 million voters?

With record turnout predicted, new voting technology and good old human error in the mix, there can be challenges to voting. Not to mention the state's odd ballot design just in presidential years.

North Carolina has a special challenge this year as the state shapes up as a battleground state.

So is the state ready to protect your vote and accurately count an expected 4.5 million ballots?

A national academic study says, yes – citing vast improvements since glaring problems in 2004.

“You're only as good as how you perform on Election Day,” said Gary Bartlett, N.C. elections director. “But we're as prepared as we can be.”

High turnout blues?

State officials are expecting a 70 percent statewide turnout. That would break the 1984 record of 68 percent when Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms battled Democrat Jim Hunt for a U.S. Senate seat and Republican President Ronald Reagan sought a second term.

In the past, long voting lines have frustrated voters who've left without casting ballots to return to work or take care of children.

But if early voting is any clue, turnout could swamp precincts bracing for crowds. At the Charlotte-Mecklenburg main library on North Tryon Street, early voters waited two and three hours Friday afternoon to cast a vote. They read library books, talked on cell phones and complained to each other about backaches. Several said they were hoping to avoid Tuesday's Election Day rush; others saw the line and left.

In 2004, N.C. voters cast 3.55 million votes, and some lines stretched past four hours. This year, Bartlett is expecting 4.5 million. The state has increased the number of voting machines and workers since then.

In Mecklenburg County, there used to be seven to eight workers per precinct, now there are 10-11, said Michael Dickerson, Mecklenburg's elections director. The early voting is actually a good sign, he said, because it should relieve the strain on Tuesday. And on Election Day in Mecklenburg County, there will be 195 precincts. There are only 20 early voting sites.

Dirty tricks?

It might seem simple to avoid, but some have missed their chance to vote because of dirty tricks.

The Women's Voices Women Vote group was accused by the N.C. Attorney General's Office of illegally manipulating May's Democratic primary to boost Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. The group had to pay a $100,000 fine over charges it sent black voters automated calls that gave the impression they might not be registered to vote for the May primary, Bartlett said.

In other N.C. elections, automated phone calls instructed Republicans to vote on Tuesday (Election Day), and Democrats to vote on Wednesday, Bartlett said. “They can cause confusion and misrepresent themselves. Whenever something like that occurs, we're on it.”

Similar tricks are playing out in other key states. In Virginia, a swing state for the first time in decades, a bogus flier carrying the Virginia Election Board's Internet logo also advised Republicans to vote Tuesday and Democrats to vote Wednesday. A flier floating around Drexel University in Philadelphia falsely warned students with unpaid parking tickets that they would be arrested if they tried to vote.

Voting machine reforms

After ballot scandals of 2000 and 2004, the federal government dedicated money to give uniformity to the nation's voting machines. But N.C voters still have to be careful. The state now has optical scanners and touch screen machines since a massive statewide upgrade in 2006.

“We had some voting equipment that was 35 years old,” Bartlett said.

With optical scanners, voters have to make sure they have filled in every oval on the printed ballot before slipping it into the scanning machine. The scanners won't alert voters to a choice left blank, in case the voter forgot to choose, he said.

With the touch screen machines, used in Mecklenburg County, there's mistrust from some because a paper ballot isn't actually marked by the voter but is generated by the machine, Bartlett said. Studies have shown “there's more human error with paper, but it's so minor.”

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which required states to buy new voting equipment and to keep centralized databases of registered voters. But some experts say the law's unintended consequences have made things worse.

Computer scientists have found that nearly every voting machine now in use has security or reliability flaws, or both.

Who's registered?

Republicans and Democrats in these elections have argued over registration drives and voter rolls.

The Republican National Committee has called into question the election's integrity over allegations the liberal Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) fraudulently registered thousands of voters.

Watchdog groups worry polling-site challenges to ACORN-registered voters and others could lengthen waiting times, and drive some away without voting.

Democrats charge that the allegations are really a Republican effort to suppress Democratic support. Some of this year's problems can be traced to Congress' reaction to the 2000 election battle, which revolved around “hanging chads,” holes that weren't fully punched next to Bush's or rival Al Gore's names.

The 2002 voting act's requirement that states' chief election officers keep central databases of registered voters has spawned legal battles from coast to coast. The law required states to routinely purge ineligible voters' names from the lists and to match new registration data with error-riddled driver's license and federal Social Security databases.

“For people who are trying to use the levers of election administration to restrict the electorate,” the availability of a statewide database makes wholesale purges easier, said Jonah Goldman, the director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

N.C. officials say that they don't purge voters listed in the central database just because their name might be misspelled.

Any voter whose name is not on the registered voter list at their precinct would have to show ID and the spelling or other error corrected. If someone doesn't have proper ID, their ballot is flagged and the voter has nine days to prove his or her identity so their vote can be counted. Voters at the wrong precincts or whose registration is in question can fill out provisional ballots that are verified later.

W ill we see the numbers?

This is the first year all N.C. counties are using the same software system to report results. North Carolina rolled out the system, from SOE Software, during the May primary and reported few problems.

But SOE has experienced problems elsewhere. In Palm Beach County, Fla., the county Web site listed the wrong candidate as winning a local mayoral race. The company blamed the mistake, fixed in minutes, on human error after an SOE technician made a column too narrow on the county Web page. It didn't affect the election results, although it led the losing candidate, who briefly was listed as winner, to quip to the Palm Beach Post: “How many times are we going to be the butt of Jay Leno's jokes that we can't count in Palm Beach County?”

Fewer than 10 of 100 N.C. counties needed help on minor issues during this year's primary, Doyle Alley, election support technician with the State Board of Elections, said. With the system, people can easily see when counties are updating their results by visiting election board Web sites. South Carolina is using the system, too. Other SOE clients: Los Angeles, Miami-Dade County, Fla., and San Diego County, Calif.

Don't forget to vote for president

In North Carolina, voters who wish to cast a straight-ticket ballot must still vote for president separately.

State Democrats put the law in place to protect themselves from state voters' long-standing preference for Republican presidential candidates.

But it can also hurt the presidential candidate, as thousands of voters do not realize they have to do more than mark the straight-ticket option.

Justin Moore, a computer science graduate from Duke University now working for Google, analyzed the state's election results in 2000 and 2004. He found that between 2.5 percent and 3 percent of ballots did not include a vote for president.

McClatchy Newspapers' Kevin Hall and Observer staff writer Franco Ordonez contributed.
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