Early primary pressure mounts

As if Florida hasn't had enough problems picking a president, consider this: Primary elections next year could be held 40 days earlier than usual there, in many cases with new voting machines. Absentee ballots must be mailed and poll workers trained before, during and after the winter holiday season.

"It's like changing a tire on a car going 80 miles an hour," Secretary of State Kurt Browning says.

Across the country in California, Conny McCormack likens Los Angeles County's election system to an aircraft carrier. "We don't turn on a dime like a sailboat," she says. That's what the county clerk says she is being asked to do by holding 2008 presidential primaries a month earlier than in 2004, on new equipment, with as many as seven different political party ballots to print.

The first presidential primaries and caucuses are less than five months away, and state and county election officials feel the pinch. Decisions by states to move up the dates of next year's presidential primaries could make it harder to hire workers, prepare ballots and open polls, they warn.

About 30 states have advanced their primary or caucus dates next year. Some will hold them weeks or even months earlier than in 2004. As many as 20 states could be voting Feb. 5. The unprecedented glut of early elections has officials worried about everything from the workforce to the weather.

"I think it's going to be a real problem for us," says Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, which advises state and local election officials. "We're in uncharted territory here."

Among the challenges:

•Testing machines. Counties in some states, including California and Florida, will switch from touch-screen voting to machines that read paper ballots. Florida's governor and California's secretary of State initiated the moves to avoid problems with touch-screen equipment. "It's definitely introducing significant risk that wasn't there before," McCormack says.

•Printing ballots. Some states and counties will need lengthy ballots printed at about the same time by a limited number of private companies that have had problems meeting demand in the past. Some ballots will list national convention delegates; about 15 will include other elective offices.

•Finding workers. Many seniors who work the polls head south for the winter. Their replacements may have to be trained around the holidays for the January and February elections.

•Mailing absentee ballots. The ballots, which are sent to as many as 6 million military and civilian voters overseas, must be mailed 45 days before the elections. In states holding early primaries, that could mean during the holidays, when mail delivery is slow, increasing the potential for disenfranchising voters, says Brad Bryant of Kansas, president of the National Association of State Election Directors.

•Negotiating bad weather. Earlier primaries boost the chance of snow and ice, which could make it tough to open, supply and staff polling places. Several cold-weather states are moving their elections into midwinter, including Illinois, New Jersey and New York.

That's what county officials in Pennsylvania hope to avoid. The Legislature has refused to move the state primary from April 22 to Feb. 12. On Feb. 13 this year, the weather was so bad an interstate highway was shut down.

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