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Purging of rolls, confusion anger voters 41% of Nov. 2 provisional ballots axed in Lucas County

Toledo Blade Political Writer   09 January 2005

Ralph and Barbara George are lifelong Democrats who first registered to vote for John F. Kennedy in 1960 and have lived in the same East Toledo house for 44 years.

They called the Lucas County Board of Elections early last year to make sure they still were registered to vote.

Informed that they were, they went on with life, including helping their son, just home from military service, to purchase a new home. Then, last fall, they applied for absentee ballots.

It was then that they were surprised to discover - too late to do anything about it - that they were somehow no longer registered and wouldn't be allowed to vote in the general election.

At the last minute, they learned that they could cast provisional ballots, so they hustled down to their polling place and did so.

It was a waste of time. Their votes were thrown out.

"Nothing surprises me anymore," said Mrs. George when she discovered last week their votes were fruitless.

"My God. We are 66 years old. We registered when we first turned 21. We have lived in this same house for 44 years, and I can't vote. It just seems ridiculous that you have to keep re-registering if you don't vote," she said. "It just turned into plain, absolute frustration."

An examination of elections records showed that, because of inactivity in recent elections, they were purged from voter roles in August, less than three months before the presidential election.

They weren't alone. Of the 3,122 provisional ballots from the Nov. 2 general election that were rejected in Lucas County, 64 percent were bounced because the voter was not registered. Of those, 405 had been registered until they were purged from the county election rolls in August, just months before the presidential election.

More than 28,000 voters were purged from the Lucas County rolls last summer, a move that county elections director Paula Hicks-Hudson said had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with following federal law.

They were removed because of "their failure to vote in two prior federal elections," Ms. Hicks-Hudson said. "They received a notice that they were on the inactive list and subject to removal. We are required to do it, under a federal law. It's a process we do to make the rolls more accurate."

"They failed to participate," she said.

Purges are mandated by federal voter registration law, confirmed Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell. However, he said, counties have flexibility in deciding whether to purge voters before or after elections. Ms. Hicks-Hudson said she did not recall why Lucas County decided to purge before the election.

Lucas County rejected a higher percentage of provisional ballots - 41.1 percent - than any county in the state and did so in significantly higher percentages than most other metropolitan counties in the state.

Despite Lucas County's experience, Ohio counted a higher percentage of provisional ballots - 77 percent - than any other state in the nation. Michigan counted 57 percent, Pennsylvania counted 50 percent, and Georgia counted just 30 percent, according to a survey conducted by Electionline.org, a nonprofit group that tracks voting trends.

"There were several contributing factors" for the problem in Lucas County, said Mr. LoParo, who added that the registration drives conducted last year by independent interest groups created trouble in Lucas and Cuyahoga counties.

The rejected provisional ballots, while not comprising a large percentage of the overall votes cast in Ohio's election, were at the center of controversy that attracted national attention.

Congressman Marcy Kaptur of Toledo criticized the handling of provisional ballots and other matters during a speech on the U.S. House floor Thursday, as Congress considered problems with the Nov. 2 vote in Ohio.

"No one can change the outcome of this election; but believe me, hundreds of thousands of Ohioans do have questions about the way that this election was handled in Ohio, in a state in which the winning margin was only 118,000 votes,'' she said.

Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine said on Thursday, "I find it almost impossible to believe that I am actually standing on the floor of the United States Senate engaged in a debate over whether or not George Bush won Ohio in the 2004 presidential election.

"Clearly he did, and did so by over 118,000 votes."

The problems with provisional voting in Lucas County point to a significant weakness in a process designed to accommodate those voters who tend to be least familiar with their local voting system. Democrats filed lawsuits in the days leading up to the election to change the way Ohio would treat its provisional ballots, but rulings from those lawsuits left the state's procedures largely unchanged.

The records of local provisional voters tell interesting tales. There were 7,591 cast in Lucas County on Nov. 2, more than double the volume in the 2000 presidential election. And, records show, the county had an unusually large percentage of rejections among those provisional ballots.

There were two principal causes of the rejection of local provisional ballots - the purge of nearly 30,000 registered voters and the casting of provisional ballots in the wrong precinct.

An analysis by The Blade of the rejected provisional voters showed that a high percentage of the rejected votes could have been salvaged had the voters been a little more knowledgeable about voting procedures or had they received a little help from poll workers.

"We were in the right building. We were in the wrong lines," said Brandi Stenson, who arrived at the polls at St. Elizabeth Seton School in Toledo's Ward 4 on Election Day with her brother and mother. All three were registered voters, records on file with the county elections board show, but they ran into trouble when they reached the front of the line at the polls.

"They looked in the book, and none of our names was there," Ms. Stenson said.

Though there were three precincts voting in the same room at the school, she said poll workers never looked up their address or offered to help them find the right line.

A fourth member of the family, Brittany, had voted earlier in the day and ended up in the correct precinct line, where poll workers found her name in the poll book of registered voters.

"She voted earlier," Ms. Stenson said of her sister. "She was the one who told us we were in the wrong line. We didn't know until we got home. She saw our names in the book."

She blames poll workers.

"I just feel like they didn't know what they were doing. They wanted us to hurry up, because I was asking questions, my mom was asking questions," she said. "They were trying to rush us out."

Brittany Stenson voted earlier in the day because she was working for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN, a community action group that worked to register people in the months leading up to the election. While her own family members were casting ballots that would not be counted, she was out knocking on doors around Toledo's central city reminding other people to get to the polls.

The Stensons were not alone. They were among 40 of the 43 provisional voters from Precinct 4N who were in the right room, but the wrong line, on Election Day. All of their votes were rejected. In all, 67 provisional ballots were cast in Precinct 4N - but 50 of them were rejected for one reason or another.

"It's not right," said Brittany Stenson.

As she surveyed the busy conditions at her polling place, Davida Lindley, a Democratic poll worker at Precinct 4L across the room at St. Elizabeth Seton School, said she thought there was the potential for confusion among voters.

"All in all, I kind of figured it was going to be a bad thing," she said of the provisional balloting. "I think that, even though it was a big turnout, people working at the polls should have taken the time to help people."

The problems at her precinct were not as bad as in Precinct 4N. In 4L, 7 of the 13 people who had their provisional ballots rejected because they were in the wrong precinct did make it to the right room, but ended up at the wrong table.

In the third precinct at the school, 4M, just four provisional votes were rejected because they were cast in the wrong precinct. But, again, those four voters were in the correct polling location, but at the wrong table.

Overall, two out of every three of the 130 provisional ballots cast at the three precincts at St. Elizabeth Seton were rejected. The North Toledo precincts serve predominantly African-American neighborhoods which went overwhelmingly for Democrat John Kerry in the race for President.

Directives to county elections officials from Mr. Blackwell decreed that poll workers are responsible for helping voters determine if they are voting in the correct precinct.

"Before permitting an individual to cast a provisional ballot, the poll worker must determine the address of the individual [and] determine if the address of the individual is located within the precinct," states a Blackwell directive to county election boards. "If the address is not located within the precinct, the poll worker shall tell the voter both: (A) The precinct in which the voter's residence is located; and (B) The location of the polling place for that precinct. If necessary, the poll worker shall contact the board of elections to determine this information."

This was the first election in which Lucas County poll workers at each polling location were issued cell phones for just such purposes, but Ms. Hicks-Hudson said she did not recall hearing that her office had received many calls about where voters should be voting.

She added that last-minute court action over how elections officials should handle provisional ballots may have served to compound the problem.

"The poll workers had a lot to do, and there was a lot of confusion about the question of provisional voting. I do think poll workers have some responsibilities, but also voters have some responsibilities," she said.

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