April 30, 2002 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

"I'm hoping for a 50 percent or above turnout, but it won't be one of our highest primary election turnouts," Union County Clerk Nellie Bogue Hibbert said about the May 21 election.

But with a local circuit judge race and "a lot of choices for governor," half the registered voters might be returning their ballots by the 8 p.m. May 21 deadline, she said.

Bogue Hibbert takes the ballots to the post office on Thursday, which should result in the ballots being in voters' hands by Friday or Saturday.

Even with a certain amount of voter apathy, new registrations keep arriving, she said.

"We've been getting a big influx of voter registrations," Bogue Hibbert said. "We've gotten about 100 to 150 a day for the last two days," she said.

Of the approximately 15,000 registered voters in Union County, there are about 6,000 Democrats, a like number of Republicans and about 3,000 non-affiliated registrants, she said.

Union County's ballots will look different this year, thanks in part to the revisions made following the fiasco in Florida in November 2000 with loose chads in punch-card


The ballots for each party will be printed on a large sheet of heavy, specially coded paper. To vote, citizens must darken an oval beside the name of the person they want to vote for.

"I want to emphasize that people should use a pencil, preferably a No. 2 pencil. The ballot counting machine only recognizes a pencil mark. It's like taking a standardized test in high school. The machine recognizes the graphite marks made in the ovals when it counts the ballots," she said.

The ballots won't be invalidated by extraneous marks, such as if a person simply holds down a pencil inside one oval, leaving a small point, but clearly votes for another position.

If people have questions or want to get a new ballot because they want to change the way they have marked the first one, they can bring in the old ballot to the county clerk's office and be issued a new one, Bogue Hibbert said.

Citizens can mail in their ballots, bring them to the clerk's office or drop them at seven city halls (all except Summerville) in the county, Bogue Hibbert said. The drop sites will be open during regular business hours at each city. On election day, the sites will remain open until 8 p.m. Ballots dropped at city hall boxes or at the clerk's office do not need postage, she said.

On May 21, the post office will devote one of its inside drop boxes to ballots (so the ballots won't go to Pendleton but will reach the clerk here in time to be counted).

"I would encourage people not to mail their ballots after May 15 so the ballots won't be caught in transit. We can count only the ballots we have received by May 21, not the ones postmarked by that date," Bogue Hibbert said. The only exception to that is that vot- ers can drop ballots with election officials in any other county in the state. The clerks have eight days after the election to receive any of those ballots from other counties.

Workers in the county clerk's office will begin verifying signatures on their computers as the ballots come in, Bogue Hibbert said.