Idaho issues 159,000 absentee ballots

BOISE, Idaho (AP) Idaho officials say 159,000 absentee ballots have been issued so far this year, a drop compared to the record absentee returns in the last presidential election.

Deputy Secretary of State Tim Hurst said Friday the state won't know how many of those absentee ballots were actually cast until Tuesday. But even if every absentee ballot issued this year were turned in, the total would still be nearly 40,000 lower than the nearly 200,000 ballots that made up a whopping 30 percent of the total Idaho votes cast in 2008.

Absentee voting in 2008 was high because Ada County Idaho's most populated county mailed out absentee ballots to every registered voter. They haven't done it since, Hurst said.

"It's a lot more work for the county elections people," Hurst said. "It takes longer to run those through the optical scanning machines, because they're folded at least once or twice. It's like feeding a crumpled piece of paper through a copier."

Twenty-five counties, including Ada, use the optical scanning machines to count votes. It's a slower process than counting by hand or using the punch-card ballots, but because the machines are popular nationwide, it's easy to keep them maintained and to get replacement parts as needed, Hurst said.

Fifteen Idaho counties have election officials read each ballot by hand, and they usually get their results in earlier than the optical scan counties, Hurst said. But only four counties Bonneville, Shoshone, Clearwater and Franklin use punch-card ballots, which Hurst said is typically the fastest method of counting votes.

Punch card ballots fell out of favor after the 2000 presidential election, when improperly punched ballots rife with hanging, dented and pregnant chads caused trouble with vote counts in Florida. Idaho's small population means that election officials in the punch card counties can visually check that each ballot is properly punched, avoiding any debacles, said Hurst. Still, it's likely those counties will have to switch to a new method soon: Hurst said they're the only four left in the nation still using punch cards.

"It's difficult to get punch card equipment maintained because people just don't make them anymore," Hurst said.

Results are likely to be slower coming in than normal in the optical scan counties, said Hurst. That's largely because of the length of the ballot. Between the presidential, legislative and county races, Propositions 1, 2 and 3 over proposed education reforms and constitutional amendments on felony probation and hunting, fishing and trapping rights, voters will have to fill out two double-sided pages. Then, election workers will have to feed each page through the scanning machines.

"You're not going to have the numbers until early in the morning," Hurst said. "Ada County is projecting their results won't be in until 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning."

Ada County Clerk Chris Rich told The Idaho Statesman that earlier voters are taking anywhere between 2 to 21 minutes to go through the ballot and vote, and that could mean long lines at the polls on Tuesday.

"If it averages seven minutes or more, that scares the heck out of me," Rich told the Boise newspaper.

Other hiccups could also slow counting efforts even a change in the humidity.

If the optical scanners are calibrated when the weather is dry, Hurst said, but it turns humid on election day, officials may have to recalibrate them to get them to read the ballots correctly. And like any piece of equipment, you can never predict when it will start being temperamental, he said.

Kootenai County Clerk Cliff Hayes said he's expecting a big turnout in northern Idaho. Hayes told the Coeur d'Alene Press on Thursday that the county had 15,000 absentee ballots submitted by mail and in person, and more than 600 people voting in person on the busiest day this election season.

"They handled it. They're doing a good job," he said of his election staff. "But no question about it, it has been busy."