Voter roll confusion in Philly forces thousands to cast provisional ballots

Confusion dominated at the polls today, forcing thousands of residents who were properly registered to vote by provisional ballot. “We’re trying to document it,” Ellen Kaplan of political watchdog Committee of Seventy said this afternoon. “We have heard about it at a number of polling places and we’re trying to we’re just trying to figure out how to deal with the problem.”

Committee of Seventy attempted to seek legal relief at the Court of Elections to allow some of the voters who were improperly issued provisional ballots to vote on machines, but lawyers for both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama’s campaigns chose not to pursue the issue under the premise that provisional ballots carry equal legal weight. Ideally, judges of elections should check computer rolls for the most updated registered voter lists, Seventy said, but many polling places don’t have computers.

Attorneys for both sides said that the snafu was a result of a backlog in processing voter registration forms due to under staffing, compounded by street canvassers who handed in large stacks of the documents immediately prior to the registration deadline.

The problem also emerged in student-heavy voting precincts, according to consumer advocacy group PennPIRG, who began receiving reports this morning that at least several hundred students at Pittsburgh and Temple universities were being turned away from the polling places listed on their voter identification cards because their names were left off the paper rolls. Many of them were only issued provisional ballots after they called in attorneys, and even after that, the confusion led to long lines that further jeopardized voter turnout and to provisional ballot shortages in several locations.

“It’s really disheartening for students who are voting for the first time to be turned away or given a provisional ballot, as if by participating in our democratic system they were doing something wrong,” PennPIRG student organizer Ryan Molson said. “Much of this confusion seems like it could have been avoided by modernizing our registration systems.”

In one case, students living in the 1300 and Temple Towers dorms at Temple University were directed by their voter registration cards and the state website to a polling place at 10th and Oxford streets, where they were not on the rolls and had to vote by provisional ballot. It appears the city did not properly update its rolls after redistricting moved those dorms to a new precinct, according to PennPIRG. At least four other polling locations at Temple reported similar problems. Students also said that poll watchers were kicked out of a Temple polling location at 16th and Berks streets.

At Pittsburgh State University, the situation was similar, with students given provisional ballots only after lawyers stepped in after they tried to vote at the locations on their voter registration cards. There, PennPIRG said poll watchers collecting those voters’ names and handing out the number of the national voter protection hotline number were told by poll workers to leave the premises. At least five other polling locations at the University of Pittsburgh reported similar problems.

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