A few weeks ago, Tony Gallo spent about nine hours in a field on his farm tending to a large fire.
As the deputy Harrison County clerk stoked the blaze, flames consumed stacks of unused ballots from the May 9 primary election.
Gallo burned the blank forms at the direction of county officials because state law requires that unused ones be destroyed.
But to Harrison County commissioners, it was not just paper that was scorched. Taxpayers' money also went up in smoke.
Commissioners are trying to initiate an effort to change a state law that requires them to print ballots for every registered voter in the county.
"It is financially irresponsible for us to have to print all those ballots when less than half of registered voters voted," Commissioner Beth Taylor said.
"It's outrageous. There's no reason for this to happen."
The commission plans to ask the West Virginia Association of Counties to lobby for that cause during the 2001 legislative session, Taylor said.
"This is a problem faced by all counties," she said. "I can't imagine a reason why elected officials would be against doing this."
In the May primary election, 17,438 of Harrison County's 42,470 registered voters cast ballots. When non-partisan tickets are counted, that means more than 50,000 unused ballots were burned.
With a total ballot printing bill of $48,472.20, that means the county burned $28,598.60 in the unused forms.
Not all counties in the area throw their unused ballots onto the fire. But all did print far more than were used by voters.
Lewis County had a larger turnout than usual this year, said Cindy Davis, deputy county clerk. But the 40 percent turnout and a printing bill of $10,567.10 means $6,340.30 in unused ballots soon will be run through the paper shredder, she said.
Although Lewis officials have not discussed trying to get the law changed, she believes they would favor such a move.
But for the Harrison County plan to work, election officials must be prepared for unexpectedly heavy turnouts, Taylor said. To be prepared, counties could pad their turnout numbers.
"They could print 10 percent more ballots than were needed in the last election," Taylor said.
Even when tax levies and controversial issues stir the ire of voters, turnout does not increase that much, Taylor said. And such instances can be anticipated.
"From time to time, we have hot issues," she said. "We can plan for those accordingly."
When a controversial issue is on the ballot, more of the forms can be printed, she said.
Voting patterns, officials say, are steady from one election to the next. Even with hotly-contested races for sheriff, magistrate and House of Delegate seats, only 41 percent of Harrison voters went to the polls this year, which is typical, officials said.
"Historically, we have good tracking," Taylor said. "We can estimate the number of voters who will come out for each election."
Commissioners plan to solicit the help of Circuit Clerk Donald Kopp, whose office is responsible for printing ballots, she said.
Money for printing the ballots comes from the circuit clerk's budget, which originates with the county commission.
And the problem goes beyond just ballots, Davis said. Counties incur other expenses too.
"I have a huge box of unused poll slips in my office right now," she said.
If the state association of counties accepts the ballot law change as a project, they will research it and prepare to lobby for the change during the 2001 legislative session, Taylor said.
Staff writer Paul Darst can be reached at 626-1404.