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CAMPAIGN 2004 PROVISIONAL BALLOTS
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.
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
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.
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
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