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Provisional ballot request has pitfalls, say watchdogs (NJ)
Courier Post Online. November 2, 2008. By MICHAEL RISPOLI

TRENTON A third of New Jersey's counties are asking newly registered voters to cast provisional ballots on Election Day, a fallback option the state and counties call risk-free that has election watchdogs worried eligible voters may be left out.

With swarms of new voter registrations cramming in-boxes of county election offices, some voters whose registrations met the Oct. 14 deadline did not wind up in the official election rolls. This forced counties to either print supplemental rolls or have these registered voters cast provisional ballots ballots filled out by hand, then reviewed by county officials days after the election to determine if they count.

Though state officials repeatedly told counties they preferred supplemental rolls additional lists given to poll workers of registered voters left off the official roll county officials say it was not worth printing out a supplemental book, that poll workers were not trained to use them and that using provisional ballots was a more familiar option.

"It made more sense to let them go with what they are used to or what they know," state Division of Elections director Robert Giles said.

Although some counties not printing supplemental rolls have figures on the number of registered voters who did not make the official list Morris County, for example, said it has 1,500 such voters not all counties keep these numbers.

The other six counties issuing provisional ballots to registered voters instead of printing supplemental poll books are Bergen, Cumberland, Hunterdon, Monmouth, Ocean, and Warren.

"If you only have one person in a town (not on the rolls), that means that you have to print a book for one voter," said Monmouth County elections superintendent Hedra Siskel. "It doesn't make sense."

The federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 guarantees the ability to vote by provisional ballot for anyone not on the rolls who believes he or she is registered. County officials praise them as safe, but these ballots have raised concerns among election watchdog groups because audits in other states have shown ballots were incorrectly rejected or not counted completely.

These issues have not been reported in New Jersey, but problems were found during the February 2008 presidential primary, when poll workers refused or did not offer provisional ballots to potential voters, according to a report by the League of Women Voters of New Jersey and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

Anne Ruach Nicolas, executive director of the league, said many voters still do not know how to handle these types of ballots and that any errors lead to disenfranchisement.

"These are people who got their registration in on time, so by all means they should be able to vote on a regular ballot," said Ruach Nicolas.

According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, 27 percent of the 11,000 provisional ballots cast in New Jersey in 2006 were rejected. Provisional ballots are rejected if a voter isn't registered, voted in the wrong district, or incorrectly filled out the paper ballot.

Giles said all registered voters in the state will have their vote counted and that it was a misconception eligible votes are rejected.

Watchdog groups also say supplemental books are preferable because it allows for voters to actually cast their vote in a booth and not have to wait until after provisional ballots are counted to see if their vote counts or not.

Andrew Stengal, election advocacy director for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said it is ridiculous counties are opting for provisional ballots.

"It's not counted on election night. It's not a regular vote," Stengal said. "That's my fear, you just don't know if it counts.

"One person should justify printing the supplemental voting roll," Stengal added.

Voters who cast provisional ballots can contact their county board of election to inquire whether or not their vote was counted.

Rutgers University political scientist Ingrid Reed said provisional ballots create uncertainty but still offer registered voters the ability to cast their ballot.

"In this environment, where so many registration came in and the lists are not up-to-date, they are a good safeguard because you would not want registered voters to leave the polls not voting," Reed said.

Reach Michael Rispoli at mrispol@gannett.com

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