Earlier this month, ballot shortages at a few polling locations in a Mississippi county caused some serious issues for voters.
Such shortages are rare in U.S. elections, but they do occur on occasion. The shortages in Mississippi — along with instances in Ohio this month and in Texas last year — point to the difficulty election officials sometimes have in determining how many ballots to have ready.
What happened in Mississippi
Mississippi has historically had some of the lowest voter participation rates in the nation. But ahead of a competitive gubernatorial election this year, activists from across the state got to work mobilizing voters.
Harya Tarekegn, the director of policy and advocacy at the Mississippi Center for Justice, says there was a particular effort made to engage with voters in Hinds County, the state's most populous and a predominantly Black county.
"There was a lot of canvassing done, a lot of community education around specific issues," she says. "But also there were a lot of efforts to drive people to the polls to make voting easier, to increase access in that way."
Mobilization efforts worked. Tarekegn says there was a surge in voter turnout on Election Day, particularly in Hinds County. Unfortunately, she says, election officials weren't prepared.
She says around midday she and other voting rights advocates started getting calls from a large network of poll monitors they had set up across Mississippi.
"We started getting calls about polling locations running out of ballots," Tarekegn says. "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 100 people in line."
Tarekegn says there was a scramble to make sure those polling sites got additional ballots. She says in some cases, it took up to two hours. And when some sites did finally get ballots, they didn't get nearly enough. And these ballot shortages, Tarekegn says, led to some extremely long lines.
"We can say for certain that there were individuals who walked away from the lines because of how long they were," she says.
There is still no clarity on what exactly happened to cause the ballot shortages in Hinds County. Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson said in a statement following reports of shortages that counties are required to print ballots for a minimum of 60% of active voters.
It's an "inexact science" to figure out how many ballots are needed
David Becker, executive director and founder of the nonpartisan nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research, says occasional shortages are why election officials are usually really careful when they are trying to figure out how many ballots to print.
"When counties, especially counties that have to preprint ballots, have to plan for the next election, it's an inexact science," Becker says. "They're doing this based on past turnout in similar elections, and they want to get it right. They want to have enough ballots so that they don't run out. But on the other hand, they don't want to print so many ballots that they've spent way too much money and had extra ballots at the end."
This also is true of counties that don't need to preprint ballots. In Hays County, Texas, there is a vote center system that prints an individualized ballot once a voter shows up and gives their address. But Election Administrator Jennifer Doinoff says they still have to estimate how many blank ballots and other materials they will need.
"We look at past like elections as well as immediate past year elections to see what our voter turnout was and, you know, what our voter registration population was so that we can try to determine how many supplies that we might need," Doinoff says. "And we always go a little bit more above."
Doinoff says lately she's been stocking 20% more paper than she thinks she'll need. Hays County, a suburban area bordering Austin, is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, so these days it's harder to predict how many people are going to vote.
And the costs of making mistakes can be high in Texas. In 2022, the state's largest county — Harris County — had shortages of blank paper ballots which resulted in criminal investigations conducted by the state, as well as a slew of lawsuits.
As a result, state lawmakers also passed legislation eliminating the position of Harris County's election administrator and restructured how elections are conducted.
As a way to avoid these situations, some states — like Mississippi — have laws about how many ballots election officials need to print ahead of time.
The cost of buying too many ballots
Tammy Patrick — CEO of programs for the National Association of Election Officials, commonly referred to as the Election Center — says those kinds of laws come with their own cost, though.
"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, particularly in primaries and in local elections where you might see single-digit turnout rates" she says. "So if you have, you know, 9% of your electorate shows up to vote, but you had to print up 100%, you are talking not only tens of thousands, but in some cases hundreds of thousands and potentially even millions of dollars that go wasted."
Most states, though, don't have those kinds of rules, according to the latest available data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. So, Patrick says, how many ballots are printed is left up to some guesswork — a little art and science.
"Sometimes it is absolutely the case where you're trying to read the tea leaves, as it were," she says. "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? These are all data points and indications that there's going to be interest in a particular election."
Why it matters if a place has more voting options
Patrick says another indicator of interest in an election ahead of Election Day is early voting.
But of course, that's only if a state has such options. Mississippi, for example, doesn't have early voting or no-excuse absentee voting.
Becker says in states like Mississippi, calculating how many ballots are needed carries with it a much higher degree of risk.
"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," he says.
Becker adds that even though there is a science to forecasting election turnout, it's impossible for anyone to know for sure.
"Voter turnout varies greatly between elections," he says. "It depends on who's on the ballot. It depends what time of year it is. Could even depend on the weather; fewer people are going to go out and vote if there's bad weather. So predicting that is difficult, which is why virtually every state allows for easy, early in-person voting and easy mail voting to some degree, taking a lot of that pressure off the single day of Election Day."
And voter behavior is getting harder to predict in some parts of the country, as voters embrace different ways to cast ballots, such as by mail.
So the task of planning an election, in a lot of cases, is only getting more complicated.
Tarekegn, of the Mississippi Center for Justice, says it's vitally important, though, that election officials get this right every time. She says what happened to mostly Black voters in her state this year is an example of the cost of not having properly planned elections.
"If eligible voters are denied the opportunity to vote, the legitimacy and integrity of our government is undermined," she says. "I think there is still confusion and that's something that we're all working on to make sure, you know, looking into 2024 that this doesn't happen again, that we know why it happened, why there were these ballot shortages, why there was all this confusion to ensure that it doesn't happen for any future election."