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Absentee Ballots Pushed as Option for Nervous Voters

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Voters are being encouraged this year to cast absentee ballots, especially if they're worried about electronic voting or problems at the polls. And it appears that many people are taking the advice. Election officials say that requests for absentee ballots are up across the country. But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, some experts warn that absentee is probably the riskiest way to vote.

PAM FESSLER: By all accounts, voting in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, this spring was a mess.

Mr. DENNIS MADDEN (Administrator, Cuyahoga County, Ohio): Lost memory cards, long lines, inappropriate staffing.

FESSLER: County administrator Dennis Madden says it took five days to get a final vote count. Some people blamed new electronic equipment. Others blamed poll workers. In any event, the county wants to avoid a repeat in November, so it's asking residents to stay home and vote from there.

(Soundbite of a public service ad)

Mr. TIM HAGAN (Commissioner, Cuyahoga County, Ohio): Hi, this is Commissioner Tim Hagan. You're receiving absentee voting applications in the mail. We encourage you to return it to us and vote the easy and convenient way.

FESSLER: The county has spent $100,000 on a radio on TV ad campaign. Its also sent absentee applications to a million registered voters and even paid the return postage.

Maryland has also had its share of problems. Voting in September was delayed for hours because someone forgot to deliver cards needed to run the machines. Governor Robert Ehrlich says he has no confidence in the electronic system and recommends that voters cast absentee ballots so there's a paper record of their choices.

Doug Duncan, executive of Montgomery County, where the worst problem occurred, has similar advice.

Mr. DOUG DUNCAN (County Executive, Montgomery County, Maryland): I don't want people to just turn their backs on the election and say, well, they can't get their act together. You know, why bother going to vote. If you had any concerns at all about the machines and not being able to have your vote counted accurately, then vote absentee.

Mr. JOHN WILLIS (Schaefer Center for Public Policy, University of Baltimore; Former Secretary of State, Maryland): In fact, paper ballots are the least secure way and the least accurate way of counting votes.

FESSLER: John Willis is an election expert at the University of Baltimore and a former secretary of state in Maryland. He says history shows that absentee ballots are far less likely to be counted than other votes. That's because they're highly susceptible to mistakes and to fraud.

Mr. WILLIS: We have contests and elections in this country that were thrown out because of the misuse and abuse of absentee ballots.

FESSLER: He notes, for example, a state Senate race in Pennsylvania that was overturned after campaign workers were found to have solicited hundreds of illegal absentee votes.

Kimball Brace is president of Election Data Services, a consulting firm. He says one problem is that absentee voters, unlike those who show up at the polls, are left to their own devices.

Mr. KIMBALL BRACE (President, Election Data Services): And what election administrators find is that the American public is great at figuring out how to foul up their ballot.

FESSLER: Circling a candidate's name instead of filling in the box, making two choices instead of one, failing to include the required signature. Brace says his study show that the error rate is about five-times higher for absentee votes than for those cast at the polling site.

Mr. BRACE: It's many instances where people just haven't marked the ballot properly so that the machines could count it.

FESSLER: Not to mention other potential problems, such as ballots sent to the wrong address or misprints. Cuyahoga County, for example, has already had to tell 5,000 absentee voters that their ballots need to be replaced because of errors. And absentee voters in Denver have been warned that the yes and no boxes have been transposed for one referendum question on their ballots.

Still, Maryland's Doug Duncan thinks voters are willing to take their chances.

Mr. DUNCAN: The choice here is vote absentee and make sure your vote gets counted, or perhaps not being able to vote at all.

FESSLER: That's why he plans to vote absentee. Although he adds his wife is a risk-taker: She's going to the polls.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: Are you puzzled by the voting rules in your precinct? We've got some advice at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.
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