Underestimating Democracy: Lynchburg Runs Out of Special Election Ballots

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Earlier this week, I wrote about how January can be a challenge for election officials because of “follow-on” special elections necessitated by November results. That observation was reinforced on Tuesday, when voters in Lynchburg, Virginia stood in long lines for a state senate special election because the city had underestimated the number of ballots needed. The News & Advance has more:

Lynchburg voters looking to cast their ballots in the special election for the 22nd Senate District on Tuesday encountered an unusual snag in the democratic process — voting precincts out of ballots.

According to Lynchburg Registrar Karen Patterson, the registrar and electoral board ordered 1,350 ballots for the special election, enough for 5 percent of the city’s registered voters. The Senate district includes about half of the city.

Patterson said historical election data was used to determine the number of ballots to print.

Pat Bower, chair of the Lynchburg Electoral Board, described the lack of available ballots as a miscalculation by both the board and the registrar and said they take responsibility for the issue.

“I do really apologize for that and the inconvenience that many voters had,” Bower said.

She added the turnout was “grossly underestimated.”

By comparison, Amherst County ordered enough ballots for an anticipated turnout of 25 percent, according to Registrar Fran Brown. In Appomattox County, enough ballots were ordered for a turnout of 50 percent of registered voters, according to Registrar Sabrina Smith. The Senate district, which stretches from northeastern Lynchburg to Goochland County near Richmond, includes all of Appomattox and Amherst counties.

State Election Commissioner Edgardo Cortes said no specific percentage was recommended by the state; local electoral boards are responsible for determining how many ballots are needed.

The shortage forced voters to stand in line – or leave and (hopefully) come back – to cast their ballots, and led to a scramble to meet the demand:

For precincts that ran out of ballots, voters either used electronic voting machines — designated and typically used as handicap accessible — or photocopied ballots were delivered for voters to fill out. Because vote-counting machines use a specific type of paper, photocopied ballots were hand-counted.

Bower said she and other election officials would take part in the manual vote counting…

Some voters expressed frustration Tuesday afternoon as they waited to vote in the special election.

Voter Leighton Dodd, who said he planned to vote for Democrat Ryant Washington, told The News & Advance he tried to vote at 11:30 a.m. at Bedford Hills School precinct, but there were no ballots. When he came back after lunch at about 1 p.m., the precinct was out of ballots again.

 “To not have enough ballots is ridiculous,” Dodd said as he sat in a line of 30 voters who were waiting for more ballots to be delivered so they could cast their votes…

Voter Bruce Blankinship expressed similar sentiments. “That’s quite absurd,” he said when he heard the Bedford Hills precinct was out of ballots, as he headed out on his lunch break to vote for Republican Mark Peake. He said he also was worried over how the issues with the special election could affect the end result.

Blankinship left the precinct without voting but said he would return to cast his ballot after work.

At nearly 2 p.m. more than 400 voters had been through the Bedford Hills precinct, according to election official Mariana Boska. The precinct had at least three rounds of ballots delivered.

But Aaron Evans, who was standing outside Bedford Hills to promote the Republican ballot, said about 50 people had left without voting since the precinct did not have ballots available.

Fortunately for the city, the candidates in the election seemed prepared to accept the outcome despite the problems:

Candidates Mark Peake, Joe Hines and Ryant Washington were informed of the ballot shortage.

Washington said Lynchburg’s ballot issues won’t influence the election’s legitimacy and said “there are lessons we learned there.”

“I feel they responded to the matter the best they could under the circumstances, and the state responded as well taking a look at what the issue was,” Washington said.

The problem that Lynchburg and other communities face is that they are under twin pressures: print too many ballots, and risk wasting scarce resources, or print too few and experience problems like those that occurred Tuesday. In that situation, forecasting is just as much about risk tolerance as it is an attempt at predictive accuracy; the fact that the three component jurisdictions had such different print runs probably says as much about how “safe” they wanted to feel about their decisions. Quite simply, Lynchburg missed low. Fortunately, it didn’t create questions about the outcome of a state senate race that could have affected partisan control of the state’s upper chamber.

Increasingly, the ability to forecast turnout and plan accordingly – and finding that sweet spot where voters don’t stand in lines while resources don’t get wasted – is a crucial skill, especially in relatively low-turnout special elections. As the “science” of election administration advances, helping jurisdictions make those forecasts will be a high priority.

It will be interesting to see if other jurisdictions face similar problems during special election season. Stay tuned …

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