Compared with various voting problems reported around the country, the delay in counting votes after polls closed in Douglas County was relatively minor.
Nonetheless it seems to be a problem that could be solved relatively easily for future elections.
County Clerk Jamie Shew reported that Tuesday's balloting and counting went smoothly until about 9:30 p.m., when his staff started to count about 6,000 advance ballots. Ballots cast on Tuesday were counted as they were completed by feeding them into machines at each polling place. Advance ballots, however, were held at the courthouse where they were to be counted by a larger counting machine that could handle stacks of ballots.
Shew said the count went awry because of coffee and other substances on advance ballots that voters had marked in their homes. Some of those ballots, he said, got stuck in the counting machine, holding up the process. County staff people began feeding the ballots individually through counting machines that had been used at polling places, obviously a much slower process. The larger machine was fixed, and the last 800 absentee ballots were counted by it, completing the process about 11:45 p.m.
The count got done, but in an election that drew only a 45 percent turnout, the clerk's office should be able to do better. Many election observers wondered, for instance, why the counting of advance ballots started so late. Those used to be the first ballots counted, with the absentee or advance voting results being posted before polling places even began to report.
Apparently, Shew now is asking the same question. State law requires at least a quarter of the advance ballots to remain uncounted until after polls closed, but many counties start their counts earlier. That seems particularly practical as the number of people casting their votes in advance either in person or by mail increases. An early start in counting those ballots will allow the staff some leeway in dealing with any equipment problems.
Shew said Wednesday he would look at starting to count advance ballots earlier and perhaps streamlining the multiple audits and checks his office goes through during the count. No one wants the office to rush the process so much that the totals become unreliable, but with all the advances in voting technology, there doesn't seem to be any reason the county can't accurately complete its vote count earlier.
All indications are that Douglas County had a clean, reliable election Tuesday night, and election officials deserve applause for maintaining a voting system with a paper backup, but the clerk should try harder to correct nagging problems that needlessly stretch out the counting process.