Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Election Foibles: Provisional Ballots

Part I in a series of posts on election problems that we will all ignore until the next time they happen.

Congress, in response to the disaster that was election 2000, passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002. One part of the act, a reaction to the complaints of voters who were turned away from the polls after their registration was wrongfully purged, ensured that potential voters who claimed to be registered but were not on the rolls would be given provisional ballots and their eligibility would be determined after the election (link and cite to legislation below).

These are anecdotal reports, but I personally know of a handful of people who, sure they were registered, showed up to vote and were told they were not on the voter rolls. Some of the people I know were rightfully offered provisional ballots, but most were not.

Frank Harris III had a similar experience:

They checked the active list, but there was no me. They checked the inactive list, still no me. I went to another line for those whose names aren't found. I informed them I'd been at my current house since early in the year and had lived Hamden for more than 10 years. They looked in their books, but didn't find me either. They called the registrar's office and it was the same: There's no Frank Harris in Hamden.
What can be done? I asked. They told me I could go to the registrar's office.
[The registrar] checked his books and found my name on the inactive list. He wasn't sure why I hadn't been found or how I ended up on the inactive list, but he told me all I had to do was head back to the polling place and have them restore me to the active list. Gratefully, I shook his hand.

Back at Shepherd Glen, after a few more phone calls and papers to sign, I was restored to the active list. It was also discovered that a page was missing from the book that contained the inactive names. My street address was on that page.

The lady at the table apologized for my experience and commended me for going through all this in order to vote. Most, she said, might have given up.
[emphasis mine]

That is exactly why the provisional ballot requirement in HAVA was enacted! Precisely because most might have given up, Congress created a way for people who are registered to vote, but don't show up on the rolls, to vote and have the Town Clerks and the Secretary of State determine their eligibility afterwards.

While Frank Harris' experience turned out okay, it might not have if he didn't have the time to put in to straighten out his eligibility. I know someone who had a similar experience, but only had the hour spent to try to find his name at the polling place to spare. He had another commitment that forced him to leave disgruntled without once hearing the words "provisional ballot."

150 UCONN students had their registration cards lost:

In Mansfield, about 150 University of Connecticut students were not allowed to vote even though they said they had filled out voter registration cards, The Hartford Courant reported.

Between 50 and 75 students filled out provisional ballots that will be counted if the registration cards are located.
[emphasis mine]

Why did only between 1/3 and 1/2 of those students fill out provisional ballots? Short of contacting all 150, there is no way to know. But I did have occasion to speak with one of them in the last few days. She said that she went to vote in the morning and was turned away as not registered. She left and thought she was out of luck until she spoke to a relative who let her know that she was entitled to vote provisionally. She went back, asked for a provisional ballot and was met with blank stares. Finally, the moderator of her polling place intervened and gave her a provisional ballot.

Additionally, a strong argument can be made that these students, and anyone who filled out a voter registration card that was misplaced by the dedicated but overworked local election staffs of the town clerks and registrars of voters, should have their votes counted whether or not their registration cards are found.

Assuming that people so situated are willing to sign a statement under penalty of false statement (similar to the statement under Conn. Gen. Stat. 9-261(a) that allows most registered voters the ability to vote without showing ID) that they filled out registration cards in that jurisdiction, they should not be prevented from voting through no fault of their own. If potential voters have done everything they needed to do to register, their votes should be unimpeachable. The alternative is to prevent people from exercising their right to vote because a well meaning but harried bureaucrat lost (or misplaced or misfiled) their registration card.

Whether you agree with me on the last point or not, it is clear from these admittedly anecdotal stories that Connecticut's election system is having trouble complying with the HAVA requirement regarding provisional ballots.

For the interested, or bored, here is the relevant section of HAVA (in relevant part), 42 U.S.C. § 15482(a) (scroll down):


a) Provisional Voting Requirements.--If an individual declares that
such individual is a registered voter in the jurisdiction in which the
individual desires to vote and that the individual is eligible to vote
in an election for Federal office, but the name of the individual does
not appear on the official list of eligible voters for the polling place
or an election official asserts that the individual is not eligible to
vote, such individual shall be permitted to cast a provisional ballot as follows:

(1) Notification. An election official at the polling place shall notify the individual that the individual may cast a provisional ballot in that election.
[emphasis mine] [further requirements follow]

Harris, Frank. Regaining a Voice. Hartford Courant, November 13, 2006.
AP, Voter turnout high statewide, few problems reported. Boston Globe, November 8, 2006.

UPDATE Speaking of provisional ballots, Republicans are clinging to a 400-odd vote lead and are challenging many of the provisional ballots cast, including traditionally valid provisional ballots. Go read the press release.


Shadow said...

Good stuff, Gabe. I think this is an issue we can all agree needs to be worked on. Every vote must count.

Wolcottboy said...

Nice article Gabe. I've always wondered why it couldn't just be Florida that worked out its own ballot and system after 2000. I still believe that.

Now its clear that even more came out of HAVA than ballot changes. Thankyou.

Gabe said...

Thanks guys. Wolcottboy - Excuse me if I am reading too much into your Florida comment, but there are really good reasons why the lever machines in use in CT (and alot of other places) need to be replaced. If you are interested, let me know and we can discuss...

turfgrrl said...

Great post Gabe. Every vote should count and any obstacle that discourages someone from voting should be removed. Having the voter registration lists online, so people could check where they are registered would help.

Wolcottboy said...


Wolcott was one of the trial towns this year and I didn't really want to walk in and vote using this new method. I figured that the scan-tron machines could probably be screwed up somehow, but as i was voting, I thought... geee... years ago and back when Democracy was founded, they only used paper and pen.

So now I guess I'm split. Part of me likes the old lever machines. Growing up when you're young you know its a novelty. Kids like the idea of going in with their parents and voting inside a shower curtain. It is really neat.

The new method takes alot of that away. Its like going to the bank, taking a test, and the novelty isn't really there. In essence: Its simple, stupid.

I mention Florida because its so silly trying to figure out how to vote. Why a punch-card? Why not some concrete yes/no device that factually is decipherable on whether or not you voted for a candidate? Now I ask myself, why a huge behemoth looking lever machine? How did we end up with that years ago? (I joked with people who didn't realize they had a new voting method - "yeah we changed it after a voting machine ate someone")

But we've really had no problems with the machine itself, so why change?

Like I said... I'm split. "New" technology that's really an old method.

Gabe said...

I know what you are saying - I've only voted in CT and NY, so I've only used the levers - there is something nostalgic about it.

That said, the lever machines need to go and here is why:

1. They are not approved under HAVA, so CT (et al) has to make the switch under federal law.

2. The manufacturers of the lever machines do not exist and have not existed for some time, so when pieces break, they either have to be hand made (prohibitively expensive) or the machine discarded.

3. Not only they do not have a paper trail, but, unlike touchscreen machines, no paper trail is possible.

4. To your point that we have never had problems with them, if we had had problems, we would never know it. Say, for example, there was a flaw in one of the machines that caused every tenth vote for a race to not register (by turning the counter in the machine). There would be know way to ever find out that it had happened. Likewise if someone turned the counter to 50 for one candidate before the election started (and the moderator didn't check appropriately - or the moderator did it).

G-BuryMan said...

UCONN votes were thrown out because they voted in the CD2 and are registered to vote in a Town outside of the CD2.

For instance, they go to UCONN and are registered to vote in Hartford (CD1).

Gabe said...

G-Bury - while that may be true of some people, the 150 students mentioned all said that they had filled out change of address voter registrations that would have cancelled their old registration and registered them in Mansfield. The issue is that their registration forms appear to be lost.