Shortfall of special ballots is glitch in county voting
The new provisional ballots in Allegheny County caused widespread problems during Tuesday’s election, but fell short of turning into this year’s version of the hanging chad of Florida’s 2000 election debacle.
About 150 voting precincts ran out of the green paper ballots given to voters whose names were not listed at polling places or whose ability to vote was challenged by polling station judges, said Al Opsitnick, assistant Allegheny County solicitor. Many of the ballots were in areas with large populations of minorities and college students.
Ballot shortages led to other problems: Three provisional voters at one Lower Hill District precinct were allowed to vote on machines. Dozens of students waited in the lobbies of Oakland precincts after the ballots ran out. Other would-be voters throughout the county walked away in frustration.
So many people were still seeking provisional ballots when the polls closed at 8 p.m. that Allegheny County Judge James O’Toole allowed voters who had been turned away at polling places to cast paper ballots until 9:30 p.m. in Room 700 of the City-County Building.
Eighty-two people cast provisional ballots during the extra 90 minutes, although their ballots were segregated so they could be challenged on appeal.
“It’s just a breakdown in part of the logistical process of allowing people to vote,” O’Toole said. County officials made a heroic effort to distribute additional ballots, but ran out of time, he said.
The federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 created provisional ballots as a way to give voters the benefit of the doubt if their names don’t appear on voter registration rolls. County elections officials will start looking at the provisional ballots Friday to determine whether the voters completing them are eligible.
The local problems are more of a glitch than a disaster, said Joseph Sabino Mistick, a Duquesne University law professor.
The provisional ballot concept “needs fine-tuning,” Mistick said. “It’s eliminated a lot of people being totally disenfranchised, so this is better. People are getting the chance to cast a ballot and have it set aside. Does it need fine-tuningâ¢ Absolutely.”
Problems with provisional ballots started almost as soon as the polls opened at 7 a.m. yesterday. They climaxed by mid-afternoon when about 50 to 60 precincts reported they had run out.
The Allegheny County Department of Elections sent out 15,000 provisional ballots — or about a dozen for each polling place, said county Solicitor Michael Wojcik. Only 200 of the ballots were cast during the spring primary, the first time they were used.
By comparison, Philadelphia County, which has just more than 1 million voters, printed 100,000 provisional ballots and did not run out.
“We believe that people who maybe should not be voting were going to the polls to vote without first registering,” Wojcik said.
The ballot shortage, which kept election officials working throughout the afternoon, caused long lines of voters at many polling places and legal wrangling in the Common Pleas Court, Downtown, where a room was set up to hear complaints from challenged voters. County elections officials started delivering more provisional ballots to Hill District precincts by 4:30 p.m.
David J. Porter, an attorney with the state Republican Committee, asked Common Pleas Judge Guido A. DeAngelis to order polling judges to keep provisional voters away from voting machines. DeAngelis said he would do so only on a precinct-by-precinct basis. Orders were issued for nine polling places as of 6 p.m.
At the K. Leroy Irvis Towers in the Lower Hill District, Elections Judge Joan Sheffey said she did not have any provisional ballots when voting started and called the county elections office for guidance at 7:50 a.m.
When no one called back, she allowed three provisional voters to cast votes on the machines before lawyers volunteering for the Bush campaign arrived at 3:30 p.m. They requested a court order to prevent any other provisional voters from using the machines.
“This could get inflamed,” said Lou Locante, 58, of Ross, who was working as a Republican poll watcher. “This was an honest mistake. I hope it doesn’t get blown out of proportion.”
There were so many concerns about the 1,200 people who voted at the polling place inside Litchfield Towers on the University of Pittsburgh campus that O’Toole granted a state Republican motion to impound the six voting machines and paperwork after the votes were counted.
“The concern was some people were voting on the machines who were not properly fit to do so,” O’Toole said.
Besides Pittsburgh, provisional ballots ran short in Swissvale, Braddock Hills, West Deer and Indiana Township, Opsitnick said.
Wilkinsburg Mayor Wilbert Young said that more than 100 voters showed up at the borough building, confused about their polling places.
Brian DiCenzo, 22, ran into problems when he went to vote at Forest Grove School in Robinson. He registered along with three other relatives in April when they moved into the district. DiCenzo’s relatives showed up on the records as registered, but he did not and had to cast a provisional ballot.
“It’s going to be a question if my vote is counted or not,” he said, “and there should be no question.”
Allegheny County ranked second among all U.S. counties for residents reporting voting problems to a national hotline before Election Day, according to the nonpartisan advocacy organization Common Cause. As of Monday afternoon, 2,764 Allegheny County residents had called the Common Cause hotline — 1-866-MYVOTE1 — to report problems. It had been taking the calls since the week of Oct. 18.
Problems with provisional ballots in Pennsylvania were not limited to Allegheny County. There also were shortages in Erie, Potter, Tioga and Northampton counties, said Secretary of State Pedro Cortes.
“I think it boils down to not having printed as many as they needed,” Cortes said.
Other voting problems occurred in Mercer County, where new voting machines accidentally recorded some votes before voters finished, and Huntingdon County, which kept Ralph Nader on the ballot. Nader had been booted from the ballot by the courts.
Each precinct in Washington County was initially given 20 provisional ballots, but officials delivered an additional 80 to each when they started running out, said Larry Spahr, elections director in Washington County.
Beaver County had no problems with provisional ballots, according to Elections Director Dorene Mandity. She distributed 5,320 provisional ballots to the county’s 129 precincts. “Not one precinct said they ran out,” she said.