Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Long election lines--I sort of feel bad for the Utah County Clerk, even if his name is "mud"

I spent a lot of time waiting today.

First, I stayed home from school to get finger surgery. Nothing major, but I still had to wear the stupid hospital gown and the whole bit. The surgeries before mine got delayed and I ended up lying in a hospital bed for two and a half hours watching CNN. Mixed blessing. I had to watch a ditzy "political correspondent" repeat what happened in the West Virginia Republican caucuses every 20 minutes, but I did get to learn more about the health plans, learn the specifics of some states' primaries, and see some interesting interviews with voters.

The surgery went well and I feel surprisingly chipper. We later went as a family to vote and ended up waiting in line at our new voting location at Cherry Hills Elementary in Orem for an hour and a half. The kids somehow held up even though our 8-month-year-old went to bed an hour late. I personally saw at least 30 people walk out without voting, some immediately upon seeing the line and others after waiting for 30+ minutes. One couple I spoke with couldn't wait because the man's health wouldn't allow him to stand that long. There were parents with young children and a large number of elderly citizens, many leaning on walkers. A woman I knew said this was the 4th time she had come back hoping for a shorter line and that she was going to be late for her daughter's parent/teacher conference. We confirmed with the people around us that the wait had been at least an hour all day long. (I guess the fact we had time to make new friends from the community while spending quality line time together could be spun as a positive...) The 3 or 4 poll workers were near-heroic in trying to handle the huge crowds, but they needed help. You could see the booths sitting mostly empty--the bottleneck was at the sign-in table. Just as we reached the voting booths a few minutes before 7:00 pm (polls close at 8:00), the head poll worker lady asked if anyone else had been a poll worker before and would volunteer to help. She got a couple volunteers and that helped a little. (I was stuck with kids to look after, but I'm thinking of signing up as a poll worker in November. My grandmother has helped at her small town precinct in Ohio for like 40 years.) I was driving home from the grocery store at 9:00 pm and KSL radio interviewed Utah County Clerk, Bryan Thompson. He said that that people were still in line to vote and that some locations would have lines until 9:30 pm!

This article from KSL explains the increased difficulty for poll workers and further quotes Thompson about the long lines.

The big problem today has been in Utah County. The county consolidated polling locations. Usually there are more than 100, but today there were fewer than 60. So at places like Bonneville Elementary in Orem, the voting lines were longer, the binders with voters' names were larger, and there was confusion about which polling places to go to.

"Actually, this is the fourth place I've been. I'm glad to be voting. I'm finally in the right line. I'll be able to vote," Dan Hackaman said.

But why would Utah county want to consolidate voting locations on such a big voting day? "It was a total misjudgment, that I take responsibility for," Utah County Clerk Bryan Thompson said.

Utah County made the decision to consolidate last November based on dismal turnout in the 2000 primary. The turnout this time around is expected to be 35 to 40 percent.

I guess the 2000 primaries were much later in the season and Bush already had the nomination sewn up, leading to extremely low turnout. I could understand an honest mistake in underestimating the number of voters this time...except that Mr. Thompson knew the turnout was going to be that high and that there had been problems at some locations during the November referendum vote that also had large turnout. Before I left home this morning, I read this article. It is all about the historic nature of this primary, both nationally and locally. There have never been two such competitive contests at the same time with Utah in a position to vote right in the middle of it. Turnout has been up all over the country. And then this from Thompson:

Bryan Thompson, Utah County clerk/auditor, said he is expecting a higher voter turnout for the presidential primaries. The primaries in 2000 had only a 10 percent turnout, but Thompson said he is expecting at least twice that amount this time around.

"We're planning on about a 35 to 45 percent voter turnout, which would be close to what we had for the municipal election in November," he said.

Many voters participated in the November elections because of the statewide referendum vote on school vouchers, and Thompson said the presidential race has garnered extra interest as well. Thompson said there has been a lot of passion in Utah County for different candidates, and a good number of residents will likely take time to vote.

Then later in the article, it continues:

In Utah County, Thompson said the polling locations will be slightly different from those used in other elections. There are fewer issues to be decided this year, so the county has scaled the number of locations down to 59 from 107. It costs more than $1,000 to use a polling place, so the county has saved between $35,000 and $50,000 with the move.

"It could backfire, I'll be perfectly honest," he said. "If people are waiting in lines, my name will be mud."

Thompson said the county has hired extra employees to handle any overcrowding, so voters should not have any difficulty.

Although there are fewer locations than there were for municipal elections, Thompson said signs will be up at unused polling places instructing voters where the new location is.

Ummmm. Whoops? I thought it sounded weird as I read it. Why consolidate if you're expecting high turnout like in the November voting? Thompson admitted that the 2000 primary pattern was going to be different this time and that he expected up to 45% turnout. He took responsibility in the KSL quote, but that still doesn't explain why he was so unprepared for what he knew was coming. As I said earlier and unlike what Thompson claimed, there were not enough poll workers and the poor head lady had been there since 6:30 this morning. And, the guy behind me in line said that he had an hour-long wait back in November for the voucher vote. In my two years of living in Orem, I have never waited longer than a minute or so to vote at my normal voting location at Westmore Elementary. I don't know if the Cherry Hills neighborhood attracts a higher percentage of voters or if it's just hard to get volunteers there (the workers there tonight were awesome!), or some other explanation for the lines. But it is frustrating that the same problems had already been observed in November, and rather than correct them (i.e. recruit more workers, more training, assign fewer people to vote at that location, etc.), Thompson consolidated two or three times more people to vote there. Was the money saved worth the voters that gave up and went home? (The results wouldn't have changed, but the principle of participation remains.)

It seems that lack of foresight, or maybe lack of money, caused the problems.

1 comment:

UtahTeacher said...



Like I said...it's sort of an understandable mistake, but it seems like cutting the polling locations in half was a stretch no matter what the election. They mention their low budget. Proper and accessible elections are something worth some expense.