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chicagotribune.com >> Nation/World

Bugs make new voting option wild card for Nov. 2 election

By John McCormick
Tribune staff reporter
Published September 20, 2004

Poll workers couldn't find Adam Borland's name in their voter registration books when he arrived in March to vote at his new polling place in the River North neighborhood.

Although he had been a registered Illinois voter for five years, the graduate student did not change his registration address when he moved from a Gold Coast apartment to a new condominium late last year.

After a few moments of uncertainty, Borland was offered a provisional ballot, a new voting option in Illinois and one that will be used in most states in this fall's presidential election.

Allowing voters with questions surrounding their registrations to cast a special ballot was part of the reform legislation passed by Congress after the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida.

But while the intent of the law was to better protect the rights of voters, the expansion of provisional voting sometimes has yielded the opposite effect.

Only 416 of 5,914 provisional ballots cast in Chicago in March--about 7 percent--ultimately were counted. The leading reason for rejection was that the form to request a provisional ballot wasn't filled out properly by the would-be voter. There also were problems in suburban Cook County, where about 4,000 provisional ballots were cast in the primary.

Borland was among those whose vote was not counted.

Disqualifying problems

In mid-August, five months after the March 16 primary, Borland received a letter saying his ballot had been disqualified because he hadn't filled out the form properly. But there was another problem: Borland went to the precinct where he lived instead of the one where he was registered--meaning his vote would be invalid according to Illinois rules.

As if Chicago's reputation for voting irregularities weren't bad enough, the city's troubled inaugural experience with provisional voting has been pointed out nationally as a sort of worst-case scenario for that form of balloting.

Election observers fear the process of checking provisional ballots after the voting will add yet another layer of confusion and uncertainty to this fall's election, especially in states where the practice is new.

"There is some concern that the provisional ballot may be the hanging chad of 2004," said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a non-partisan election watchdog group based in Washington.

Demand for provisional ballots could be especially strong on Nov. 2, considering the intensive voter registration drives under way. This also will be the first presidential election since many voting districts were redrawn after the 2000 census.

Provisional ballots are new this year to about a third of the states, including Illinois. The rules vary from state to state.

While a provisional ballot is not counted in Illinois if the voter casts it outside his or her home precinct, other states may count such ballots under certain circumstances.

This summer, Ohio's Republican secretary of state instructed local election officials that provisional ballots cast by voters outside their home precinct should not be counted. But he reversed his position after lawsuits in other states challenged that stance.

Problems with provisional voting tend to be greatest in urban areas such as Chicago because there are so many polling places and higher concentrations of low-income residents, who tend to be more transient and require frequent updates to their registration addresses.

"In urban areas, there are so many precincts that the local poll workers in a given precinct are not always aware of where to send the person," said Doug Lewis, director of the Houston-based Election Center, a non-partisan group that trains local election officials.

Lewis said it typically takes three elections for local officials to work out the bugs associated with a new procedure. For at least 17 states, including the battlegrounds of Missouri, Nevada and Pennsylvania, provisional ballots will be new for a presidential general election, according to electionline.org.

In the March primary, 10,287 provisional ballots were cast in Illinois, a number almost certain to grow in November.

Delayed results

Beyond the confusion about which provisional ballots to count and which to reject, special ballots can throw a close election into disarray. Some states allow more than two weeks for verifying provisional ballots.

In close elections, the winner sometimes cannot be determined until such ballots are counted. That happened in March in a race for the Cook County Board of Review, when it took nearly two weeks to declare a winner.

Tom Leach, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, said many of the ballots that were rejected in the March primary were from people who "weren't qualified to vote in the first place." He said a lack of poll-worker training was the biggest factor in the many provisional ballots disqualified.

Besides better training for the city's roughly 14,000 poll workers, Leach said each of Chicago's more-than 2,700 polling places will have precinct maps to direct voters who show up at the wrong site to the right one. In addition, phone banks will be set up to answer questions about polling locations, and the form to apply for a provisional ballot will be simplified.

Copyright � 2004, Chicago Tribune

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