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Experts Say Expected Surge in US Voters May Strain Polls


Voter turnout is expected to soar in the U.S. presidential election in November, following record participation in several primaries earlier this year. Experts say the flood of new voters may strain polling stations, creating added pressure especially in states that are introducing new voting technology. VOA's Brian Wagner has this report from Miami.

Scores of new voters are expected to cast ballots in this year's presidential election, and some will be new U.S. citizens voting for the first time. Community groups and political party workers flocked to a recent inauguration ceremonies in Miami to register newly eligible voters. Republican and Democratic party leaders are eager to expand their party rolls ahead of what is expected to be a tight presidential election.

In Miami, the pace of voter registration is up over past years, and some groups say they have reached their registration goals well ahead of the November ballot.

Carlos Pereira of the Immigrant Orientation Center says the election is drawing keen interest from Hispanic voters.

Pereira says voter registration is the issue of the moment for Hispanics. He says there is long-running pressure to try to resolve key issues like immigration reform and to improve the economy.

Already, turnout in this year's presidential primary votes showed a big jump over previous ballots. Primary numbers doubled in Florida, as well as Iowa, Virginia, Arizona and other key states over 2004. The surge is likely to continue in the November general election.

Kevin Wagner, a political scientist at Florida Atlantic University, says election officials should be preparing for a big turnout. He says the added numbers may pose challenges for election officials preparing for early voting periods and the day of the election.

"We are likely to get some new voters here. Do they vote early? Do they know how to vote early? That may lead to issues with voting machines themselves because you are going to have a good number of voters unfamiliar with all the technologies," he said.

Election officials in Florida already are on the lookout for potential trouble caused by new voting technology. This year, Florida and several other states are replacing touch screen computer machines that were only introduced in recent years. A new state law requires voters to use paper ballots which are read by an optical scanner and stored in case of a recount.

Florida lawmakers decided to replace the touch screens after security experts warned that computer hackers could penetrate the machines and alter votes. Many touch screens had no paper trail of the votes cast - raising additional fears of potential tampering.

Wagner says officials are hoping the new optical scan machines will diminish those fears. But that does not mean mistakes will not occur, such as penciling in the correct circle, or bubble, on the paper ballots. "But does that mean we will not have errors? Will people bubble [mark] the wrong areas? Will they not understand the bubbling? Sure and it is going to happen," he said.

Across the nation, the number of voters using paper ballots and an optical scanner is rising, up to 55 percent this year. At the same time, the use of touch screens is down, to about 33 percent of voters.

Kim Brace of Election Data Services tracks the voting systems used across the nation. He says the increase in paper ballots creates new pressure on election officials to make sure they have enough ballots to keep pace with the expected rise in voters. "It is an issue and it is a rather significant issue. What we are seeing is that the number of paper ballots needing to be printed is going to be double what it was in 2004," he said.

Ballot shortages caused serious delays in Ohio and other communities during the 2004 election, as well as during primaries earlier this year. Experts say ballot supply is especially critical when there is strong participation from non-traditional voting blocs, such as Hispanics and other minorities.

In Florida, the first test of the optical scan technology comes in August, when Florida votes on local posts.

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