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Most provisional ballots rejected; voters often in wrong precinct
By Jane Musgrave for the Palm Beach Post. 10 November 2004.

The vast majority of provisional ballots ? voters' last chance to have their voices heard ? were rejected, a review of the presidential election results from across the state found.

While most elections officials on Tuesday were still analyzing the reasons thousands of ballots ended up in the waste bin, they said the majority of rejected ballots were cast by people who simply were not registered to vote.

Other reasons ballots ended up in the trash: voting in the wrong precinct, signatures that didn't match those on file at the elections office and lapsed registrations because voters hadn't responded to address-verification requests and hadn't voted in at least four years.

Those who unsuccessfully filed lawsuits to give voters greater flexibility in casting provisional ballots said the high number of rejections signals a need to change Florida law.

Unlike 17 other states, Florida doesn't allow people to cast provisional ballots anywhere in their home county. To be counted, the ballot has to be cast at the polling place for the person's assigned precinct.

Palm Beach County Judge Barry Cohen, who chairs the county's elections canvassing board, said it pained him to reject ballots that were cast in the wrong precinct.

"I was not happy with rejecting the ballots of those people who went to all the trouble to register, went to the polls and went through all the other hoopla and then, because they voted in precinct 1028 instead of 1064, their vote didn't count," he said.

"The law is clear, but the law is not right," he said.

Florida Sen. Ron Klein agreed. The Delray Beach Democrat said changing the requirement is one of several election reforms he will suggest in the upcoming legislative session.

"We're in a computer age. You should be able to vote in any precinct," he said. "We're acting like we're in the dark ages because we can't overcome technology issues. To me this is elementary computer technology. These things can easily be fixed."

Provisional ballots were created in the wake of the 2000 presidential debacle when allegations were made that tens of thousands of people nationwide were unfairly denied the right to vote because of inaccurate records at the polls.

By casting a provisional ballot, people can preserve their vote until their eligibility is determined.

Had provisional ballots existed in the 2000 election, Cohen said, they could have well made the difference between victory and defeat for Al Gore, who lost his shot at the Oval Office by 537 votes.

Though upset by the number of ballots that were thrown out, Cohen said he and fellow canvassing board members did everything they could to make sure every vote counted.

Knowing that summaries of court records are notoriously inaccurate, Cohen refused to reject a ballot without proof that a person was a felon. Fellow canvassing board members, County Commission Chairwoman Karen Marcus and Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore supported his view.

Cohen asked the clerk of courts to give the canvassing board orders signed by a judge for voters whose ballots were going to be rejected because they were felons.

In at least a half-dozen cases, Cohen said, the board discovered that the person had been convicted of a misdemeanor or adjudication had been withheld, so the person wasn't technically convicted of a felony. About the same number were rejected because it turned out the voter had been convicted of a felony.

Though disheartened that he had to reject more than half of the provisional ballots that were cast, he said there is good news hidden in the seemingly lopsided figures.

"If it wasn't for the provisional ballots, more than 1,000 people wouldn't have been allowed to vote," he said. "Even if we wind up rejecting the vast majority, we stop a lot of people from being disenfranchised." Cohen said he was also struck by the passion that brought people to the polls.

In more than one ballot, people wrote such entreaties as, "Please let my vote count."

However, in many cases, the canvassing board simply couldn't.

Alma Gonzalez, a Tallahassee attorney who represented unions in their unsuccessful legal fight to the precinct-only requirement, said voter protection groups are going to analyze the election results closely to see why so many ballots were rejected.

"We're going to look at the lessons that were learned and what obstacles remain," she said. "This issue is not going to go away."

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