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N.C. officials vow smoother election

Four years ago, North Carolina became a poster child for election foul-ups.

In Gaston County, officials forgot to count 13,200 votes, a mistake not noticed for days. Vote-counting errors in Mecklenburg delayed the results of two county commissioner races for nine days.

And in Carteret County, a faulty voting machine lost more than 4,400 votes – delaying for three months the election of the state commissioner of agriculture.

This year officials promise a smoother election.

And one nationwide study called North Carolina one of the six states best prepared for what's expected to be a record U.S. turnout.

“We have done everything we can to prepare,” says N.C. elections director Gary Bartlett.

He predicts a state turnout as high as 70 percent. In 2004, it was 64 percent.

Since then, North Carolina has invested millions in new equipment and training. It increased by half the number of sites for early voting, which already has accounted for nearly a fourth of the total expected turnout.

Through Friday afternoon, more than 950,000 North Carolinians had voted during the first week of early voting. That's close to the 1 million who cast ballots during the entire early voting period in 2004.

On Friday, hundreds of Mecklenburg County voters waited in the rain for as long as an hour and a half. And there's still a week of early voting left.

Voter demographics

On Sunday alone, more than 5,000 Mecklenburg County church-goers are expected to take part in a “Souls to the Polls” campaign. At least one pastor plans to end services early and bring bag lunches to congregation members waiting in line.

So far Democrats and African Americans have voted early in disproportionate numbers.

Whatever the political impact of early voting, officials say it will cut the lines on Election Day.

In Mecklenburg, where 83,000 people had voted through Thursday, elections director Michael Dickerson predicts as many as 200,000 will have voted by the time early voting ends Nov. 1. Given turnout predictions, that would leave about 220,000 voting on Nov. 4.

By comparison, he says, about 150,000 voted on May 6, the day of the primary election.

Learning from the past

This year's voters will find a lot has changed since 2004.

Statewide, there are more voting machines. Bartlett says election workers have gone through “nonstop training” for the last two years.

Lawrence Norden, director of the Voting Technology Project at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, gave North Carolina high marks in a national study co-sponsored by Common Cause and Verified Voting.

“Obviously 2004 in Carteret County seems to have had a big effect, and a positive effect, on putting procedures in place,” Norden says.

He points to, among other things, post-election audits and “voter verified” paper records that let voters using electronic machines see copies of their votes.

In 2004, Mecklenburg County had 1,100 voting machines. This year there are 1,900. Four years ago, the county had 600 fully trained election workers. Now there are 1,400.

“We're in good shape for this election,” Dickerson says. “Will there be any problems? Of course … But we have people ready to take care of those problems.”

Straight-party caution

Norden says one problem can't be addressed before the election: the ballot.

That's because in North Carolina, voters who cast a straight-party ticket must cast a separate vote for president. He cites a Duke University study showing that 90,000 people who cast straight tickets in 2004 cast no vote for president.

Polls this year suggest a close race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain in North Carolina.

“If history is any guide,” Norden wrote, “this has the potential to have a huge impact on the outcome of the presidential contest in North Carolina.”

Staff writer Ted Mellnik contributed

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