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How ballot shortages happen in the U.S.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Ballot shortages are a rare occurrence in American elections, but they do happen. That was the case earlier this month in some polling locations in Mississippi and Ohio. NPR's Ashley Lopez reports on why voters may encounter those ballot shortages.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Voting rights groups in Mississippi had a network of people monitoring polling sites on election day. Things were going smoothly until about midday.

HARYA TAREKEGN: We started getting calls about polling locations running out of ballots.

LOPEZ: That's Harya Tarekegn with the Mississippi Center for Justice. She says they were getting calls from Hinds County, the state's most populous and a predominantly Black county.

TAREKEGN: Some locations had already run out of ballots by the time a poll monitor called us, and some we got calls where, you know, they had 14 ballots left but a hundred people in line.

LOPEZ: Tarekegn says there was a scramble to make sure those polling sites got additional ballots. She says in a lot of cases, it took a while, up to two hours, which led to some extremely long lines.

TAREKEGN: We can say for certain that there were individuals who walked away from the lines because of how long they were.

LOPEZ: It's unclear what caused the ballot shortage in Hinds County, but at least one official told local media they didn't think that many people would vote. Local election officials are supposed to order ballots for 60% of active voters, which is required by state law. Ballot shortages don't happen often, but they are serious problems when they do. David Becker with the Center for Election Innovation and Research says that's why, for the most part, election officials are really careful when they're trying to figure out how many ballots to print.

DAVID BECKER: When counties, especially counties that have to pre-print ballots, have to plan for the next election, it's an inexact science. They're doing this based on past turnout in similar elections and they want to get it right.

LOPEZ: This is also true in places that don't need to pre-print ballots. In Texas, many counties have centralized vote centers which print out individualized ballots once a voter shows up. In 2022, the state's largest county, Harris County, had shortages of blank paper ballots, which resulted in criminal investigations, lawsuits and the state restructuring how the county's elections are run. As a way to avoid these situations, some states, like Mississippi, have laws in place about how many ballots election officials need to have on hand. But Tammy Patrick, with the National Association of Election Officials, says those kinds of laws come with their own cost.

TAMMY PATRICK: In those states, it's quite frequent that they are recycling volumes and volumes of ballots that go unvoted because the voters don't participate.

LOPEZ: Patrick says unused ballots could end up costing local officials thousands, even millions of dollars. That's why, she says, most states don't have rules about how many ballots officials need to print. So figuring it out is left up to some guesswork, a little art and science.

PATRICK: Sometimes it is absolutely the case where you're trying to read the tea leaves, as it were. So you're paying attention to how much your community is paying attention to the election. So are there a lot of street signs, candidate signs up? Are you getting a lot of phone calls into your office with questions about the election? Have you seen an uptick in voter registration or requests for absentee ballots?

LOPEZ: Patrick says besides requests for absentee ballots, one of the best indicators of interest in an election ahead of Election Day is early voting. But of course, that is only if a state has these options for voters. Mississippi, for example, doesn't have early voting or no-excuse absentee voting. Election expert David Becker says in states like that, calculating how many ballots you need carries with it a much higher degree of risk.

BECKER: Because all of the voting behavior, almost all of the ballots are going to be cast on a single day. If you get something wrong, that leaves you very little time to fix it.

LOPEZ: That puts a lot of pressure on election officials to accurately predict voter turnout, which isn't easy. And, Becker says, it's often the case that vulnerable communities, which already have fewer resources, are most affected by ballot shortages.

Ashley Lopez, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "SUPERSTARR (FEAT. MEECHY DARKO, CJ FLY AND HAILE SUPREME)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.