Months after November’s presidential election, city officials are planning to address issues that caused widespread problems for voters at Temple and the city as a whole.
Mayor Michael Nutter held an open session on Feb. 6, in City Hall, at which voters aired dissatisfaction with the voting process and provided suggestions for what the city could do to fix Election Day problems. The mayor’s staff listened to voters’ stories and promised to improve the process in future elections.
Managing Director Richard Negrin said the city was largely successful in handling more than 700,000 votes. He recognized that problems were prevalent and said the mayor had challenged his team to hear from voters and come up with solutions to the issues they faced.
“It was large and busy and not just because of the presidential election,” Negrin said. “There was a lot of confusion around voter ID and many polling places moved from their usual locations.”
Samantha Monroe had an experience typical of many voters. She arrived at her polling place, which had changed since 2011, and poll workers could not find her name in the rolls. Monroe said after producing multiple forms of registration and ID to prove she was registered, she was told to cast a provisional ballot.
“It bothered me,” Monroe said. “I had to fill it out right in front of the poll worker.”
Jennifer Lan worked as a judge of elections on Nov. 6, and said the privacy for voters casting provisional ballots could have been improved.
“The voter doesn’t feel like they’re casting a vote,” Lan said. “If they could at least get behind the curtain and have privacy, it would be a lot better.”
PennPIRG, a local election watchdog group, estimated at least 557 Temple students had to vote using provisional ballots, as The Temple News reported in November. Their votes were not counted until months after the election had past. Their names did not show up on the registration book at their polling places, but many voters said they were registered, some of them for years prior.
More than 27,100 voters were forced to cast provisional ballots, more than double the number seen in the 2008 election. The issue has plagued city government and election officials, who know the numbers were not a coincidence.
Nina Huizinga spent Election Day working at her polling place, which covered many students from the University of Pennsylvania. She said the number of provisional ballots coming into her location was so high and unprecedented they had to call in for more. The same situation occurred at polling places near Temple as well.
Nathan Shrader, a political science Ph.D. student who works at Temple’s Center on Regional Politics, researched the provisional ballot situation. Shrader said provisional ballots first came as a result of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which strengthened voting standards in reaction to the controversial 2000 presidential election. It established a statewide, centralized voter registration list, and required first-time voters to provide a proof of identification.
“Voters who were not on the list or didn’t have ID were entitled to cast a provisional ballot,” Shrader said. “Those have increased since 2000.”
The recent election marked a surge in provisional ballots around the country. Cleveland, an election focal point, saw an increase of 2,500 provisional ballots. But nowhere was the increase more drastic than in Philadelphia.
“Provisional ballots have not been with us very long,” Shrader said. “There have been complaints in past elections, but locally this is the most controversial.”
Carol Jenkins, leader of the 27th ward in West Philadelphia, said her election experience was terrible, in part because of a flood of provisional ballots coming through her ward.
She said the city sent mixed messages to poll workers as to which voters would have to vote with provisional ballots.
“I was told that if you called the city and they verified the person was registered, they could vote on the machine,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said she, like many other poll workers in the city, ran into busy phone lines when trying to confirm a voter’s registration. Without any contact to the city, she decided to let voters confirm that they were registered by going to the state’s online system on their smart phones.
“Then I got a call from the Commissioner’s Office,” Jenkins said. “They said I cannot let them vote on the machine.”
City officials have been investigating the causes of the provisional ballot influx and other issues that plagued voters at the polls.
Officials cited the increased number of polling location changes as one probable cause. City Commissioner Stephanie Singer released a report investigating provisional ballot procedures in the city.
She found that 14,000 provisional ballots were cast by registered voters whose names had appeared in the poll books at their proper polling place. The report suggested that the number came from voters going to the wrong polling places and casting a provisional ballot when they found their names were not in the book.
The report found an additional 5,000 provisional ballots came from voters whose names were not on the poll books at all. It said the cause may be attributed to a programming error in the Pennsylvania Department of State’s voter registration database.
“There are 20 verified cases in one division alone,” the report indicated. “At the time of release of this report the best estimate is that thousands of provisional ballots were cast because of this error.”
Angela Lee of PennPIRG said her organization will not be pursuing any legal action against the city or state concerning the election mishaps.
Even with thousands of provisional ballots counted months after Election Day, Shrader said the votes had no impact on the election. All races in the city and state had already been called by the time the provisional ballots were counted.
The impact for the individual voter was different, however. Many Temple students cast their ballots, only to have their votes ignored as the races were decided. Voters at the mayor’s open session said the provisional ballot situation represented a general mishandling of the election by the city.
Shrader and his colleagues at the Center for Regional Politics hoped the city would improve future elections by better integrating technology into the voting systems. Shrader said the provisional ballot situation could be a catalyst for a much-needed change.
“There must be a way of centralizing the technology,” Shrader said. “Using a database instead of poll books could help mitigate these problems in the future.”
The mayor and his team have said they will continue their efforts to improve elections in the future. Voters can share their Election Day issues and offer suggestions at the next open session on Feb. 28 at Bright Hope Baptist Church at 12th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue. Temple students are invited to share their own voting stories and help solve these issues before the next election comes around.
Joe Gilbride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.