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Thursday, 11/09/06

Metro wants more voting machines

Long lines, ballot make long day not wanted again

 

 

By BRAD SCHRADE, ANNE PAINE, RALPH LOOS and LEE ANN O'NEAL

Staff Writers

 

 

John Hailey shows what time it was when his wait to vote finally ended after five and a half hours in the Madison Public Library. (CLAUDIA PINTO / THE TENNESSEAN)

 

 

 

Davidson County will need more electronic voting machines to avoid a replay of Tuesday night's midnight voting problems, which had some voters waiting in long lines to cast ballots 5 hours after polls closed, according to the county's election administrator.

 

Election officials in Montgomery and Williamson counties said they would also be pressing for additional machines after the unexpectedly high turnout also led to lengthy waits there.

Davidson voters, though, seemed to have it the worst. A confluence of forces challenged the county's voting system and led some voters to leave the polls in frustration without casting a ballot.

 

As voting winds down at Cora Howe Elementary School in east Nashville, where two machines served 527 voters, poll worker Theeda Murphy rubs her temples after an 18-hour day. (SHAUNA BITTLE / THE TENNESSEAN)

 

 

At Cora Howe Elementary School in east Nashville, voters were casting ballots until nearly 12:30 a.m. With just two voting machines for the precinct's 1,816 registered voters, the Greenwood Avenue polling place had the highest ratio of registered voters to machines in Davidson County.

 

Aubrey Gilley and his wife went to Cora Howe just before 3 p.m. but turned around and left without voting after seeing the long line and crowded parking lot.

 

"This is the first time I felt like I was denied the opportunity to vote," Gilley said. "It's utterly absurd to think that two voting machines could take care of Cora Howe school."

 

Two machines were adequate in the past, Davidson County election administrator Ray Barrett said. In August, just 214 voters cast ballots at the location. On Tuesday, the number swelled to 527.

 

No one knows how many people, like the Gilleys, simply left out of frustration.

 

In addition to the heavy turnout, there were up to 20,000 Davidson County voters who needed special attention from poll workers because of changes of address or other information, Barrett said. Those checks further slowed the process, he said.

 

The election administrator also pointed to the six Metro charter-amendment proposals on the ballot that made Davidson County's ballot the longest in the state.

 

Months before the election, members of the group The Gathering to Save Democracy had said the county was not buying enough machines and should purchase ones with a paper-ballot component for voter verification.

 

Vendor Election Systems & Software Inc., had recommended that 519 of its touch-screen iVotronic machines would suffice for the county.

 

Barrett urged election commissioners to add 100 more, which they did before the purchase was made last spring. As a result, the county purchased 619 of the new voting machines, 15 more than the old machines they replaced.

 

Still, Barrett said he will press for additional machines, probably as many as 100, before next year's mayoral and Metro Council elections.

 

"This issue won't happen again until you have a long ballot," he said. "But I'd be the first to say we need more machines."

 

His sentiments were echoed by election officials in Williamson and Montgomery counties.

 

Williamson County poll worker Lois Argo said voters regularly asked her why there weren't more than three machines at her Hunters Bend Elementary polling location.

 

"Some people came and then they left. They had children to take to school or they had appointments," she said.

 

Argo said the wait there was up to four hours, though once voters made it to the front of the line at the machines, they were "in and out within three minutes.

 

"I felt bad," Argo said. "They're so patient, but this is a little ridiculous."

 

But Williamson County election administrator Ann Beard reported only minor problems. She acknowledged her county is growing fast and the need for more machines is growing.

 

"There's little doubt in my mind we'll need quite a few more," Beard said. "It's got to be a priority."

 

In Montgomery County, the last ballot was cast about 11:15 p.m., said Vickie Koelman of the county's election commission.

 

While not surprised by the heavy turnout, Koelman said it was impossible to predict which precincts would experience the largest turnouts. The county's election office has 100 voting machines, which Koelman said is not enough.

 

"Aside from more machines, the only thing I'm wishing for is a magic ball so we can predict how many voters are going to turn out and which precincts they'll be voting in," she said.

 

Adding to the challenges, Tuesday was the first major election in many counties in which ballots were cast on the new electronic machines.

 

For voters, a solution to the glitches can't come fast enough.

 

"I've never seen lines that were two hours long," said Sam Frazee, who voted at the Cleveland Street Community Center in east Nashville. "I'm afraid of its discouraging people to come out and vote."

 

The machines cost approximately $3,000 each.

 

Councilman David Briley, who witnessed the long line at Cora Howe after the polls closed, said he wanted answers about what went wrong Tuesday, and not just at Cora Howe.

 

Briley, who has said he is considering a run for mayor next year, could have a lot riding on an efficient voting process.

 

"Obviously, we're going to have to bring the election commission to the Council to talk about why it happened and what to do to avoid this in the future," he said. "If it requires more money to buy additional machines, we might have to do that."

 

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