WASHINGTON -- October 28 -- Provisional ballots, mandated by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) after the 2000 presidential election to ensure no legitimate voter is turned away from the polls, are likely to become a tool for suppressing minority votes next week, according to Spencer Overton, a professor at George Washington University Law School, in a newly released White Paper commissioned by the NAACP National Voter Fund (NVF).
Party officials in a number of states have assembled teams of lawyers to challenge provisional ballots, writes Overton, and he predicts that many provisional ballots cast by legitimate voters -- especially minority voters -- will be discarded or otherwise go uncounted as a result of these challenges. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported this weekend that the process has already begun, as the Ohio Republican party challenged the validity of over 35,000 voter registrations in the state.
"In recent months, election boards around the country have been swamped with new voter registrations, a bulk of which were from minority or low-income neighborhoods," Overton says. Because newly registered voters are less likely to show up on voter rolls, he says, poll workers might try to make them cast provisional ballots rather than "investigating to determine whether a voter is truly eligible." In Chicago voting in March 2004, only 7 percent of provisional ballots were counted.
"Many of the over 200,000 voters that the NVF has registered over the past year might be victimized by these voter challenges," said Greg Moore, executive director of the NAACP National Voter Fund.
In addition to administrative errors that might exclude eligible voters from the voter rolls, "political operatives at polling locations may also target people of color for voter eligibility challenges," ensuring that they must cast provisional ballots that are then likely to be challenged or discarded, the author says. At many polling centers, state law allows for partisan representatives to challenge the registration of any voter for any reason.
In many states, provisional ballots will not be counted if they are cast in the wrong precinct. Many polling locations contain multiple precincts, Overton says, so it is possible for a voter to be at the right location but cast a vote at the wrong precinct table. And poll workers, he writes, will often fail to direct voters to the proper location. Voters can leave the polling place assuming their votes will be counted, but they will not be, he says.
"We commissioned this white paper to alert voters that so- called reforms, voter laws and protections implemented after the last presidential election, have instead been used as a whole new series of obstacles," said Moore. "We will continue to fight these efforts to disenfranchise our voters. If we can't get relief in the courts, we will take this fight to the polling place itself."
Some poll workers use provisional ballots as a catch-all "solution" to quickly address any problem rather than taking the time to investigate whether a voter is truly eligible, Overton writes. "If problems arise, a voter should ask poll workers to take steps to confirm the voter's eligibility so that the voter may cast a regular ballot, even if doing so takes a little more time."
Voters should cast provisional ballots "only as a last resort," according to the report. To try to avoid the necessity of casting a provisional ballot on Election Day 2004, the NAACP National Voter Fund Report recommends that every voter take the following steps:
1. Check your registration and precinct location before Election Day. Verify your registration and precinct information with elections officials (e.g., a city or county clerk or registrar.) Call 1-866-OUR-VOTE to check where you should go to vote.
2. Bring photo ID. Not all voters are required to show ID (which can be a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document that shows your name and address), but it's a safety net in case you are challenged at the polls.
3. Bring pen and paper. In case of a problem, write down the name of the poll worker and any information about the situation for future reference.
4. Show up early. This will help avoid lines and give you time to deal with any problems that might come up.
5. Try to resolve eligibility problems at the polling place: If your name is not on a precinct's voter list, ask poll workers to contact the registrar's office to check the master list, determine whether you are in the proper precinct, and if not, get the address of the right precinct. Make every effort to go to the proper precinct to vote.
6. Cast a provisional ballot only as a last resort: If this is the only option after an investigation of your eligibility to vote, cast it. The election official should give you written information telling you how to find out whether your vote was counted and, if not, why not.
For a copy of the white paper and more information about voter eligibility and provisional ballots, visit: http://www.naacpnvf.org/.