How would you feel if you went to the polls to cast your vote but couldn't because your polling place ran out of ballots?
That’s what happened to some St. Joseph County voters.
The reason? The county election board admits it wasn’t prepared.
Even though there were about 9,000 fewer voters this year compared to the presidential election in 2008, Republican board member Murray Winn says the board underestimated the number of voters at the precincts.
“I was angry,” said Lori Jaworski, who was told her Osceola polling place was out of ballots when she showed up to vote Tuesday with her 18-year-old daughter.
Jaworski wasn’t alone. Like dozens of other voters across St. Joseph County, election workers told her she’d either have to wait or come back to vote.
“They said they had Mishawaka ballots, but I would not be allowed to vote for Penn School Board because it had Mishawaka School Board on the ballot,” she explained.
She and her daughter, a first time voter, chose the Mishawaka ballot because they were in a hurry and couldn’t wait. The election judge looked over the ballot when she turned it in to make sure Jaworski didn’t vote in the Mishawaka school board race. She did not get to vote in the P-H-M board race where she works and her daughter goes to school.
When asked whether the election board was at fault for the ballot snafu, Winn admitted it was.
“There’s no ducking that,” he said. “We misestimated and unfortunately, we weren’t in a position where we could print enough quickly enough to meet the demand.”
Here’s how Winn said it happened. This fall, St. Joseph County started using new ballot counting machines on a trial basis to tally absentee votes. Those machines were only in use at the County-City building. The county used the original, older machines it has been using since 2003 at all of the precincts. But since the two machines are slightly different, the ballots must also be slightly different to be compatible with the machine being used.
When poll workers started calling the election board around noon Tuesday saying they were about to run out of ballots, the board realized it couldn't send what Winn estimated to be about 15,000 extra absentee ballots because they wouldn't work in the precinct machines.
They frantically ran copies at the County-City Building and Kinko’s but couldn’t get those copies delivered to polling places before some precincts ran out.
“We can only apologize that we were not able to really do what needed to be done so that everyone who needed to vote would be able to vote,” Winn said.
Several election workers also complained that they couldn’t get through on the phone lines to the election board during the election Tuesday to request ballots and ask other questions. Those lines were jammed, Winn said, because several other precincts were dealing with the redistricting issues and voters who’d been told in the spring their polling place was changing but simply forgot and didn’t know where to go.
“I felt like I had an incomplete ballot and that has never happened to me,” said Jaworski.
WSBT pressed Winn and acting County Clerk Rita Glenn for numbers Wednesday, including how many people didn’t get ballots, how many precincts ran out or how many extras had to be printed.
An election board meeting is planned for 10 a.m. Thursday. WSBT will have a crew there and hopes to get more answers then.