Significant waits are likely at Lexington County polling places Nov. 4, a result of the lengthy outline of a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax package on the ballot, county election commission chairman Eugene Wilbur warned Thursday.
His prediction came after County Council put the plan on the ballot despite being asked by election officials to delay the referendum and give the Legislature a chance to prevent the problem.
Short explanations and price tags for each of the 93 projects that would be paid for by the tax will appear on the ballot.
It probably will take the typical voter 10 minutes – double the usual time – to wade through what could be as many as 20 pages of candidates and proposals,Wilbur said.
The tax plan alone promises to double the number of pages on the ballot.
“The lines will be long” as many voters struggle to digest the tax plan, Wilbur predicted.
Putting the entire package instead of a summary on the ballot is required under state guidelines.
The tax hike awaiting voter approval would pay for $268.1 million in road improvements and other projects as well as up to $91.3 million additional if proceeds are higher than expected.
“There is no way we can shorten it,” Council Chairman Johnny Jeffcoat said of the tax plan outline. “We had no choice.”
He scolded election officials for a sky-is-falling view, saying extra help will be assigned to assure polls operate smoothly.
“We will be there to help,” he said.
But extra personnel won’t speed balloting, Wilbur said.
Frustration at the wait is likely to explode with angry complaints, while other voters become impatient and leave, he said.
Passing out summaries beforehand to waiting voters traditionally is fruitless, he said.
About 160,000 voters in the county cast ballots on about 650 machines at 96 locations. About 20 precincts exceed or are near the 2,200-maximum preferred by county election officials.
State standards controlling submission of tax proposals to voters require it be done in conjunction with ballots for candidates, instead of separately. Any delay now would push back the tax vote until 2016 at the earliest.
The delays at the polls expected this fall could increase if council members proceed with plans for a second referendum to allow sale of beer and wine by the package on Sundays, Wilbur said.
And the lengthy ballot in turn will slow down the tally after polls close, he said.
Election officials weren’t consulted about the tax plan as it was developed during the past year, so their warning came belatedly, Wilbur said.
“They had no idea how this is going to impact us,” he said.
There’s time to take both proposals off the ballot and ask the Legislature next spring to allow a one-page summary of the tax plan to be used instead, Wilbur said.
County leaders are dismayed at that suggestion, saying it would shelve months of preparation, force development of a new tax package and unravel a coalition of support for it.
The tax is the only way to pay for many long-delayed projects, backers say.
Jeffcoat scoffed at the suggestion that going to the Legislature for a revision is a simple and quick fix.
“You know it’s not that easy,” he said.
Foes of the tax hike called the complaint from election officials a bonus for their cause.
“It’s an unexpected gift,” said R.J. Shealy, consultant for Citizens Against the Tax Hike. “I would never thought this to be a concern.”
Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.