Shane Cohen had never voted before.
The junior marketing major showed up at the Amos Recreation Center on 16th and Berks streets around 1 p.m. on Nov. 6 to cast a ballot for President Barack Obama. When Cohen asked a poll official for assistance, the official directed him into a “college line,” where multiple students voted provisionally despite having registered on time.
Cohen had registered to vote at least three weeks before the election and received his voter registration card in the mail ahead of time, he said. Cohen was directed to vote provisionally without giving his name or offering his registration card, he said.
“No one even asked my name or if I was registered,” Cohen said. “I said, ‘Do I go to the machine now?’ and he said, ‘No, you’re done.’”
Though President Obama carried Pennsylvania as part of his re-election, Cohen and hundreds of other students were forced to vote provisionally.
PennPIRG Program Associate Angela Lee said at least 557 Temple students had to vote provisionally, according to statistics gathered by the organization.
Stephanie Wein, Temple’s organizer for PennPIRG, said the organization has a rough number of approximately 700 people who had to vote provisionally in the area around Main Campus. Though she said they aren’t all students, the majority of the demographic voting were from Temple.
Lee said it’s unclear if all of the students who had to vote provisionally were registered, but was still shocked by the number.
“The fact that all of these students thought they were registered and had to vote provisionally is pretty obscene,” Lee said.
PennPIRG officials speculated outdated voter rolls at polling places throughout the city could have caused the high number of provisional ballots.
Provisional votes are used to reconcile issues with registration, such as spelling of a voter’s name or voters who show up at the wrong poll location, and are typically counted at least a week after Election Day. Since the number of provisional ballots is normally negligible, provisional votes aren’t tallied until days after the election has been called.
However, polling places across the city scrambled to facilitate provisional voters at numbers that could have reached thousands, PennPIRG officials estimated. Wein said many polling places had to send out for additional provisional ballots, and some had to make multiple trips.
At the Norris Homes polling station at 11th and Berks streets, Mayor Michael Nutter, who had stopped by while campaigning with State Sen. Vincent Hughes for Obama, said he had to put in a call to provide the polling place with more provisional ballots.
At least 100 Temple students who registered to vote on time, filled out the proper documentation and showed up at the correct polling place were forced to vote provisionally, Wein said. Some students said they called registration offices days and weeks ahead of time and their registration in Philadelphia was confirmed, but their names didn’t appear on voting rolls on Election Day.
“I saw students with registration cards that I submitted myself turned away from polling places,” Wein said. “It was not a failure of the students. It was not a failure of the [office] registering them. It was a failure of the polling places.”
PennPIRG will follow the provisional votes to make sure that the ballots get cast. If the ballots aren’t counted, the group, along with other government watchdog organizations, could follow with complaints and litigation, Wein said.
“We’re going to follow those names that were forced to vote provisionally and see if those votes do, in fact, show up as counted,” Wein said. “If we have a lot of provisional ballots not being counted, we’ll look into filing some form of formal complaint.”
At polling places on 10th and Oxford streets and 16th and Berks streets, some Temple students were separated into “college lines” and forced to vote provisionally. Temple students who registered properly were told at voting places surrounding Main Campus that their names weren’t on the list and that they had to fill out a provisional ballot.
Wein said the number of those forced to vote provisionally leads her to believe that there is a greater problem.
“You’re going to have students going to the wrong places and that’s what normal provisonals are for,” Wein said. “But the number of students on provisons who we know did everything right is what leads us to be pretty concerned.”
At the Norris Homes polling station, freshman business major Alli Hefflinger said she registered to vote in August, was sent a sample ballot and had been provided with a voter registration card, but still had to vote provisionally.
Many students who said they voted provisionally also admitted to registering late. PennPIRG Organizing Director Vanessa Wright said the city received more than 100,000 registration forms on Oct. 9, the last day Philadelphia voters could register.
“I think what happened was that they didn’t process them fast enough,” Wright said.
The city could also not have updated its rolls after redistricting following the 2010 U.S. Census. Temple students who registered an address at 1300 residence hall or Temple Towers could have been directed to the wrong polling place, a PennPIRG press release indicated.
Wright oversaw voters at a recreation center on 10th and Oxford streets, where 176 of 796 votes cast were provisional.
Sophomore reading studies major Brianna Addison arrived at 10th and Oxford at approximately 7:30 a.m. She said she was forced to vote provisionally, as was her roommate.
“I thought it was a normal,” Addison said. “I didn’t realize it went down like it wasn’t supposed to.”
Sophomore film major Craig Hacker arrived at the recreation center on 10th and Oxford streets later in the day, when more college students were there and were voting provisionally. Hacker said he was initially told to vote provisionally, but asked poll workers to check for his name again and it was found in a different folder.
Hacker said students were asked to wait in the “college line” separate from other voters.
Freshman English major Julia Eckert showed up to vote at Penrose Recreation Center at 12th Street and Susquehanna Avenue, but voted provisionally after her name wasn’t on the registered voters list.
“He said people didn’t get processed in time,” Eckert said. “I was really mad. I didn’t even know what a provisional ballot was when I filled it out. I was really confused.”
Eckert said she registered to vote in Philadelphia on Oct. 9. Eckert called home on Election Day and her dad told her she was on the voter roll in her home town of Delaware County, Pa. Eckert called her registration manager, who said she wasn’t registered anywhere.
PennPIRG registered more than 3,500 Temple students to vote. Officials said they are investigating why so many voters’ names weren’t on the rolls in the various polling places.
Joey Cranney and Sean Carlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.