Saturday, September 16, 2006

Major Ignored Election Issue

Lisa Handley, a friend and expert on organizing elections, pointed out to me a major problem regarding last Tuesday's primary which has been almost totally ignored. She kindly agreed to write a short piece explaining more:

As a political scientist who has spent the last few years observing and assisting the UN and other international organizations with transitional elections in a host of Third World countries, I thought working the polls in the US (especially given the 2000 election debacle) might be educational. I signed up and served as an election judge in Montgomery County, Maryland and I must say, I got a bit more than I bargained for. But rather than reiterate all of the problems that have already been mentioned by other commentators and recap all of the usual solutions offered, I would like to point out a problem that has yet to be addressed by observers:

Very little training was provided and very few directives were issued on when and how to use provisional ballots. A provisional ballot is designed to be a “fail safe” measure to ensure that all eligible voters have an opportunity to cast a vote. Provisional ballots are normally cast in the following circumstances: a voter declares that he or she is eligible to vote but his or her name does not appear on the official list of eligible voters, the voter indicates a change of address (outside of the 21 day limit) or a different party affiliation than the one on record, the voter is listed as required to show identification but does not have it available, or the e-poll register indicates that the voter has been issued an absentee ballot or has already voted. On Election Day in Montgomery County, voters cast provisional ballots for a variety of additional, unanticipated, reasons: voter access cards (VACs) were missing and therefore the voting machines could not be used (this applies to all voters casting a ballot early in the morning), the voter cast a ballot during extended hours (this should have applied to all voters arriving at the polling station after 8:00 pm), or the e-poll machine crashed during the voter check-in process for a particular voter.

Because the Board of Elections (BOE) did not adequately plan for emergencies and because pollworker training was insufficient, pollworkers were unclear when provisional ballots were required and unsure of how to code the provisional ballots that were issued. What this ultimately means is that the BOE is, in many instances, not going to be able to distinguish between provisional ballots cast in the morning because the precinct was missing VACs, provisional ballots cast in the evening because of extended voting hours, provisional ballots cast because the pollworker mistakenly asked the voter to fill one out (i.e., unaffiliated voters and voters that moved within the 21 days were sometimes incorrectly asked to fill out a provisional ballot), and true provisional ballots that must be verified before being counted, counted in part, or not counted at all.

The BOE will have quite a task on their hands when, come Monday, they start to wade through the provisional ballots. And should the court decide that the provisional ballots cast after 8:00 pm not be counted – well, I rather suspect the BOE will face an impossible task.

Anyone have any idea how the Board of Elections intends to address this problem? As Lisa explains, many of the so-called "provisional" ballots were not meant to be provisional. At the same time, the Board of Elections needs to verify whether the genuine provisional ballots ought to be counted. However, in many cases, the provisional ballots are all mixed together.

It sounds like a serious lawsuit waiting to happen in close contests like the congressional race for the Fourth District of Maryland.