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.

"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."