Early primary pressure mounts

"We would have had significant legal and practical problems in staging the election and in getting the kind of voter turnout we would like to see in a major election," says Douglas Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

Some states that face particularly stiff challenges:

•California (Feb. 5 primary):Secretary of State Debra Bowen's decision this month to ban most touch-screen voting machines is "catastrophic" in places such as Los Angeles, McCormack says. Optical-scan machines that read paper ballots will have to be substituted. "This is very disruptive to counties trying to plan for a February election," she says. "The holidays are shot, that's for sure."

•Florida (proposed for Jan. 29 but in dispute):A new law requires most counties to switch to optical-scan machines by July 1. Many want to do it for the presidential primaries rather than wait for state primaries in August. "A January primary certainly changes the dynamics for local elections officials," Browning says. "Absentee ballots have to be mailed out no later than Christmas."

•Illinois (Feb. 5):Cook County needs to train 12,000 poll workers in January, when many retirees have left for Florida or other warm areas. In Rock Island County, about 80% of the 325 poll workers usually are seniors. "We hope we won't be tearing around the day before the election just trying to find somebody who can fog a mirror," County Clerk Richard Leibovitz says.

•Michigan (Jan. 15 but in dispute):The recruiting and training problem could be worse here under a law signed Tuesday by Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Elections director Christopher Thomas says most snowbirds stay south until April. "Weather's certainly a wild card, but no different than February," when the 2004 Democratic primary was held, he says.

•New Jersey (Feb. 5):The state faces two challenges — holding its primary four months earlier than usual and adding printers to its touch-screen machines to produce a paper record. The paper will be the official ballot in any recount, so workers must be trained well, says David Wald, spokesman for the attorney general's office.

•South Carolina (Jan. 19 and 29):The state is running the primaries for the first time, rather than the Democratic and Republican parties. "It's a challenge," says Marci Andino, executive director of the state Election Commission, but "with one office on the ballot, it's going to be a simple election."

Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, says the most basic problem will be educating voters about their new primary dates. The rest, he says, "is going to be part of the laboratory we're in this year. Every bump in the road can't be anticipated."

Federal election experts say the states and counties should be able to handle all the changes brought on by early primaries.

"Election officials have had a lot of stuff thrown at them," says Thomas Wilkey, executive director of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. "It doesn't make any difference what time of year they conduct an election. They're going to conduct it the same way."

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