Unused ballots are stacked high at the board of elections...

Unused ballots are stacked high at the board of elections office in Mineola. (Nov. 5, 2010) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Call it a $1.3 million pile of doodle paper.

Voters in Nassau and Suffolk may have voted last week on spanking new electronic machines, but local boards of election are now stuck with hundreds of thousands of unused and useless printed paper ballots -- far more than were used in the fall elections. What's worse, the boards are required under state law to find room to store the unused paper ballots for two years.

The paper debacle came about because state elections officials told local boards across the state to print paper ballots for 110 percent of the entire number of registered voters in each county.

However, officials say the local turnout for last week's election totaled about 44 percent. The waste was even more pronounced in the September primary, when turnout was approximately 15 percent.

"We shouldn't be forced into institutionalized dysfunction at a time when the state and counties are going broke," said William Biamonte, Nassau County's Democratic election commissioner. "There are a lot of youth and senior programs that could better use the money."

He said the state should let counties print just 10 to 15 percent over what is expected in any year's election: 75-80 percent turnout in a presidential year, 45-50 percent in a gubernatorial year and 25 to 30 percent for off-year races.

Biamonte said Nassau printed 990,000 paper ballots for last week's election, and 625,000 paper ballots were left over. Each paper ballot, made of heavy stock paper, costs about 55 cents, meaning the price on unused ballots in a county with serious financial issues was $343,000.

In the September primary, he said the county printed approximately 790,000 ballots because there are 220,000 voters -- unaligned to any political party -- who could not vote in primaries. Biamonte said that only about 150,000 voters turned out, leaving 640,000 unused ballots at a cost of $352,000.

Suffolk officials report similar waste, saying they spent about $1 million for paper ballots in the primary and general election, and now have $600,000 worth of unused printed ballots lining a whole wall of their warehouse in Yaphank. The cost to both counties totals $1.3 million.

For this year, the federal Help America Vote Act, which paid for the new voting systems nationwide, will reimburse the $1.3 million. But next year, Nassau and Suffolk taxpayers will begin footing the bill themselves. Beyond the useless ballots, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who also opposed the switch from lever machines, said counties are being socked with other added costs, which in Suffolk included $1 million for an air-conditioned warehouse to store new machines, and new trucks to transport them.

"We're wasting millions on this crazy system," he said.

John Conklin, a state elections board spokesman, said the state board did not mandate printing ballots for 110 percent of the voting population, but did recommend it. "It's not in writing anywhere, but it was a suggestion made repeatedly at conferences," he said.

Conklin said the board based its recommendation on other states. He said some states require having enough paper ballots for 120 to 150 percent of all voters.

"If would be far worse if we ran out," Conklin said. "In that doomsday scenario, we would be disenfranchising voters." He pointed to the problems in Connecticut last week, when some polling places ran out of ballots on Election Day.

Officials could not say what might happen to the leftover ballots - and whether it would be possible to recycle them.

Conklin said the state board is not considering immediate changes, but added officials might consider them in the future.

Levy said the state should not delay. "We've never had a 100 percent turnout and we'll never have 110 percent," he said. "The state should adapt to reality and stop throwing money down the tube."

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