Roadmap for Investigation of Provisional Ballots

Introduction

On November 6, 2012, there were over 27,000 provisional ballots cast in Philadelphia. Philadelphians deserve to know why there were so many provisional ballots voted on November 6, 2012. Here we give a roadmap for the investigation.

Investigations into the provisional voting in the 2012 General Election in Philadelphia may well yield recommendations for improving procedures. It may also yield a deeper understanding of the Philadelphia electorate and their needs. While we will probably find instances of procedures that failed or did not work perfectly, we may also find that provisional ballots were meeting a legitimate need of Philadelphia voters who were not absent from Philadelphia but were far enough from their precinct of registration during the voting hours that they chose to vote provisionally, knowing that their votes for President and other statewide candidates would be counted.

Provisional ballots are a 21st-century phenomenon in Philadelphia. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 mandated their use. Use of provisional ballots has tended to increase over the years. It is possible that one factor in the increase in the number of provisional ballots voted is an increase in awareness among voters and poll workers.

 

The rest of this report consists of possible reasons for provisional ballots, along with recommendations for investigation and follow-up in each case. At the end is a short glossary

Reason: 17-year-old registrant not switched to active status on 18th birthday

  • Explanation detail: Citizens who are 17 years old and who will be 18 years old by the day of the next election are eligible to register. When they register, they are entered into the SURE database by employees of the County Board of Elections, with status “ACTIVE-UNDER 18”. Voters with this status will not appear in the poll books. Before printing the poll books for an election, the County Board of Elections should run a utility program that changes the status of all of these voters to “ACTIVE-REGISTERED”. Either this utility program was not run, or it did not perform as required. Therefore citizens who registered at the age of 17 and turned 18 over the summer and fall were omitted from the poll books and the supplemental sheets.
  • Known Extent: at least 20 such registrants have been identified, at least one of whom was reported (by Judge of Election) to have voted a provisional ballot on November 6, 2012, because her name was neither in the poll books nor the supplemental sheets

Recommendation:

    • Data collection: examine SURE system logs to see when the utility program was run and with what parameters
    • Data collection: Ask Philadelphia Board of Elections or Pennsylvania Department of State for a SURE-generated list of all such registrants; match against the list of provisional ballots
    • Follow-Up: Philadelphia Board of Elections should create formal checklist and timeline of all utility programs and procedures for which it is responsible, as well as a control system to ensure the checklist is implemented for every election

Reason: Person not duly registered in Philadelphia County

  • Explanation detail: A person who is not registered to vote has the right, upon entering a polling place in Philadelphia and asking to vote, to vote a provisional ballot. At the County Board of Election, if the person is not duly registered to vote in Philadelphia according to the SURE database, the provisional ballot will not be counted.
  • Extent: Unknown as of now

Recommendation:

    • Data collection: Ask Philadelphia Board of Elections for a list of all persons not duly registered in Philadelphia who cast provisional ballots, along with any contact information from the provisional ballot envelopes. If legally possible and appropriate, contact a sample of these voters to discover why they voted when they were not registered
    • Follow-Up: Use results of data collection to improve public education about registration
    • Follow-Up: PA lawmakers should consider state legislation to allow same-day registration

Reason: Registrant voted outside the precinct of registration

  • Explanation detail: A person who is registered to vote in Philadelphia has the right to vote a provisional ballot in any Philadelphia polling place. At the Philadelphia County Board of Elections the ballot is assigned to the precinct in which the voter is registered, and any votes on that ballot in races in which the person has a right to vote will be counted. So, for example, the vote of a person registered in Northeast Philadelphia who voted in a polling place in Southwest Philadelphia would be counted for President of the United States, but not for State Representative.
  • Extent: Unknown as of now

Recommendation:

    • Data collection: Ask Philadelphia Board of Elections for a list of all persons duly registered in Philadelphia who cast provisional ballots outside of the precinct of registration, along with any contact information from the provisional ballot envelopes. If legally possible and appropriate, contact a statistically valid survey of these voters to discover why they voted where they did, including whether they knowingly voted outside their precinct of registration or whether they were misinformed
    • Follow-Up: Use results of data collection to improve public sources of information about polling place locations
    • Follow-Up: Use results of data collection to identify major reasons that voters voted outside the precinct of registration, and then understand and address each of these reasons
    • Follow-Up: Philadelphia Board of Elections should institute real-time tracking of provisional ballot voting and routine contingency plans for printing and sending additional provisional ballots to precincts that run low

Reason: Registrant duly registered in the division, but was not found on poll book or supplemental sheets

  • Explanation detail: Elections take place twice each year. In only one in eight elections (namely, the Presidential general election) are there typically significant numbers of duly registered electors whose names are on supplemental sheets rather than in the regular poll books. Judges of Election and Inspectors of Election are independently elected officers of the State, and they are responsible for knowing and following all laws and procedures; however, in practice, poll workers sometimes forget to check the supplemental sheets.
  • Extent: Unknown as of now

Recommendation:

    • Data Collection: Ask Philadelphia Board of Elections or Pennsylvania Department of State to provide a list of voters who voted provisional ballots in precincts where (according to the SURE database) they have the right to vote on the machine. Check a statistically valid sample of these names to determine whether they appeared in the poll book, the supplemental sheets, or neither
    • Follow-Up: If names of duly registered voters (per SURE) were incorrectly omitted from the poll books, Pennsylvania Department of State should identify and fix the source of the error
    • Follow-Up: If names of duly registered voters (per SURE) were incorrectly omitted from the supplemental sheets, the Philadelphia Board of Elections should identify and fix the source of the error
    • Follow-Up: If names of duly registered voters were in the poll books or supplemental sheets but not found by the poll workers, Philadelphia City Commissioners should research how poll workers actually get their information about their responsibilities at the polls, and then use the results of that research to improve the whole ecosystem of poll worker training
    • Follow-Up: Philadelphia City Commissioners should institute procedures to follow up with poll workers after any election in which mistakes are reported

Reason: Machine down time

  • Explanation detail: If half or more of the machines in any one precinct are inoperable, poll workers should immediately start issuing emergency paper ballots. Technically, these ballots are not “provisional” but “emergency”; in particular, they are not subject to challenge. However, the actual materials used for these ballots are the same as the provisional ballot materials, as is the initial processing.
  • Extent: Unknown at this time

Recommendation:

    • Follow-Up: Philadelphia Board of Elections should compile all available data about machine down time, including reports from the voting machine vendor, reports from poll workers and any relevant notes on provisional ballot envelopes or elsewhere in the election materials

 

Glossary

Poll Books: aka “District Register”, the two-volume printed and spiral bound list of all registered voters in the precinct, printed by a vendor for the Department of State, using data exported from SURE.
Precinct: the smallest unit for which election results are reported, aka “district” or “division (within a ward)”. Each precinct has a local election board, a table with poll books and other election materials, dedicated voting machines and dedicated provisional ballots
Provisional Ballot Envelopes: aka affidavits, the green envelopes in which the voted provisional ballot is placed, on which the voter writes name, address and phone number and which the election officials sign. These envelopes are returned to the Board of Elections for processing.
Supplemental Sheets: Printed paper 8.5x11 pages supplementing the poll books, including voters whose registration was processed after the export of data to the poll book printing vendor. Supplemental sheets are printed by the County Board of Elections, using data from SURE.
SURE: Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors, a.k.a. the voter registration database maintained and hosted by the Pennsylvania Department of State, with terminals for data input and extraction at the County Boards of Election.

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