Provisional Balloting Works Well in Initial Tests

 

The debut of provisional balloting in Utah went smoothly at polling places across the state on Nov. 5, but state elections director Amy Naccarato admits to one regret. 

"I wish we would have done more educating ... explaining that elections would not be decided on election night," Naccarato said. "That could have solved a lot of day-after-the-election questions like, You mean the results could change?"

In particular, Naccarato pointed to the state's tight 2nd Congressional District race between Democratic incumbent Jim Matheson and Republican challenger John Swallow. Matheson prevailed by about 2,000 votes in the state's closest U.S. House race in almost two decades, but outstanding provisional and absentee ballots made the outcome too close to call until the day after the election.

Provisional ballots are given to voters who claim to be registered, but whose names do not appear on the voter rolls on Election Day. The ballots are set aside for verification and tabulation after balloting is completed. The process varies from state to state and can take several weeks, which can delay the declaration of a winner in close races until well after voters went to the polls.

Colorado's 7th Congressional District race also demonstrated the impact that provisional ballots can have on the elections process. On Election Night, Republican Bob Beauprez led Democrat Mike Feeley by just over 300 votes out of more than 160,000 cast. But that did not include thousands of provisional ballots, which were being used for the first time in Colorado this year.

The outcome remained in limbo for several weeks as election officials scrambled to determine standards for counting the ballots and candidates prepared lawsuits to influence the count. Finally, after a Denver judge ruled on the validity of some of the ballots, the final results released more than two weeks after Election Day showed Beauprez's lead shrinking to 122 votes. That triggered an automatic recount that concluded this week with Beauprez winning by 121 votes, meaning Election Day has become Election Month.

Still, there has been little criticism of the process in Colorado or other places, despite the potential for delays in obtaining final results.

In Utah, Naccarato praised the implementation of provisional balloting, which was the result of legislative efforts earlier this year.

"It solved so many problems," she said. "We didn't have to turn people away at the polls. People weren't mad. It went very well."

Election officials from other states that introduced provisional ballots this year 2002 echoed Naccarato's positive assessment.

Missouri elections co-director Betsy Byers said fewer provisional ballots were distributed statewide than anticipated, particularly in the St. Louis area, which may have contributed to a smooth Election Day. Some predicted before the election that the combination of new voter identification rules and the introduction of provisional balloting would lead to chaos in St. Louis akin to the problems that plagued the city in 2000.

"No one really had any problems once we put in place administrative rules for how to handle the provisional ballots," Byers said.

Byers expects more voters to cast provisional ballots in 2004 than the 3,006 that did so this year. "But we've had this election to go through and figure out how to do it. We'll do even more election judge training next time," she said.

Maryland and Florida also reported few problems with provisional balloting.

"We had lots of meetings about the guidelines and procedures," said Ross Goldstein of the Maryland state board of elections. "We had lots of input from the local officials which helped a great deal in making the process go smoothly."

The experience of these states is important because the new federal election reform law requires every state to offer provisional balloting beginning in 2004. Utah, Colorado, Missouri, Florida and a handful of others were simply an election cycle ahead.

Having now been through one major election, Byers offered this piece of advice to states who will implement provisional balloting in 2004: "Education is always the key."

 
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