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Voting fraud prevention has some Lee County voters venting  (FL)

ELIZABETH WRIGHT   Naples Daily News   24 October 2008

BONITA SPRINGS — What Lee County elections officials consider a necessary precaution against voter fraud has left a Bonita Springs woman worried about whether her vote will be counted.

Marilyn Fielding has never in her adult life missed voting in a presidential election, and this year, she went to cast a ballot on the first day of early voting in Florida.

She got in line with her husband Monday afternoon at the elections center across from Bell Tower in Fort Myers but she wasn’t allowed to go in with him.

The poll workers there told her there was a problem: a ballot had already been sent to her. It was an absentee ballot county records showed she had requested. Since she didn’t have that unused ballot with her to surrender, she would have to cast what’s known as a provisional ballot — the kind that won’t be examined or counted until two days after Election Day.

Unlike other ballots, provisional ballots must be scrutinized by the county canvassing board, and voters do not learn if their votes counted for 30 days.

“They said this is the way it is,” Fielding said. “I was upset. I want my vote to count.”

This was not her mistake, she said. She claims she never received an absentee ballot, so how could she return one?

Poll workers told Fielding an absentee ballot had been sent to her second home in Connecticut. But Fielding claims she never even made such a request.

She had planned to be back in Florida by the election, and furthermore, she said she and her husband always made plans to vote in the same place.

“We always ask for ballots together,” she said. If she had truly made a request for an absentee ballot, he would have made the request too — yet he was able to vote in person on Monday without any issues.

The poll workers were very polite as Fielding insisted that there had been an error, she said, and they told her not to worry, as this had been happening to other people, too.

That, Fielding said, “made me feel even more concerned.”

She went ahead and signed a form, marked her provisional ballot, then watched poll workers put it in a small envelope, then place it with other provisional ballots.

Lee County elections officials said they were following procedure, but in this kind of situation, Florida Divisions of Elections spokeswoman Jennifer Krell Davis said, “you should be able to vote a regular ballot.”

That’s how Collier County handles it, and state election law does not require a provisional ballot in this situation.

State statutes on the return of absentee ballots says that if an elections official “confirms that the supervisor has not received the elector’s absentee ballot, the elector shall be allowed to vote in person as provided in this code. The elector’s absentee ballot, if subsequently received, shall not be counted and shall remain in the mailing envelope, and the envelope shall be marked ‘Rejected as Illegal.’”

Lee County’s policy of requiring provisional ballots is about preventing voter fraud, Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harrington said.

“Some people think it’s a little bit overboard,” she said, but that isn’t her view.

“We want to make sure they don’t put one in the mail and then stand in line to early vote,” she said.

Her office’s records show that there were 78,300 absentee ballot requests for this election. So far, 41,800 of those ballots have been returned — some voted, others returned unused.

In all cases, Harrington said, those ballots were mailed out at a voter’s request. Some people were offered a chance during the presidential primaries in January to receive absentee ballots for the rest of the year. Political parties have also helped return absentee ballot requests, she said.

“So many people have requested these. They’ve requested these and they forget,” she said. Printing, mailing and processing each returned absentee ballot costs about $5. “We don’t go in an arbitrarily request an absentee ballot for someone.”

She explained that when someone shows up to vote, the database in front of a poll worker shows whether they have made an absentee request, and whether the election office has received the ballot back.

If an unused ballot has been returned — or is returned at that moment — the individual can vote.

But, “if we do not receive it and they do not have it to surrender it, they vote a provisional ballot,” Harrington said.

The situation that Harrington is trying to prevent — in which a voter turns in two different ballots in the same election — hasn’t happened in Lee County.

“Not that we know of,” she said.

It hasn’t happened in Collier County either, even with a different policy.

There, if someone claims to have lost an absentee ballot or to have never received one, “we go ahead and let them vote a regular ballot,” said Gary Beauchamp, Collier chief deputy supervisor. ”I don’t know that there’s a wrong way to handle it, unless a voter votes twice.”

Whether to allow someone in a situation like Fielding’s to vote — then put the responsibility on the elections office to make sure to discard any absentee ballots that could arrive later — or whether to insist on a provisional ballot, is a procedural decision each county makes, he said.

If someone turns out to be eligible to vote, Beauchamp said, “there really is no difference” with a provisional ballot versus being able to vote in person.

There had been 36 provisional ballots cast as of Friday afternoon in Collier County. None had been cast because of missing absentee ballots.

In the presidential primary in January, there were “a couple hundred” provisional ballots cast in Lee County, Harrington said, explaining that she would not have a good count of provisional ballots in this election for another week.

Provisional ballots are collected from each early voting site each night, and poll worker Mike Horlack said there were 19 provisional ballots cast Thursday at the Bonita Springs early voting site, which is one of five in the county.

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