Fear of ballot shortage in Pennsylvania

November 6, 2012

It’s been a very busy day at the Pennsylvania polls, with voters standing in long lines, sporadic reports of erroneous robocalls and widespread confusion about the state’s strict new voter identification law, which a judge ruled last month should not be enforced for this election.

Republicans in heavily Democratic Philadelphia went to Election Court to complain that certified monitors from their party were not being seated at certain polls and to ask a judge to order that a large mural of President Obama painted on an elementary school wall be covered.

But the most serious problem seemed to be this: There have been 196,000 new Democrats registered this cycle, and hundreds of those were showing up to vote for the first time, only to be turned away when their names did not show up in on the voting division records. Election law calls for those voters, some of whom showed a reporter the screen grab from the computerized city database verifying their registration, to be offered a paper provisional ballot.

In several precincts throughout the city, provisional ballots were making up 10 percent of the total, and election officials said they were worried they would run out.

The load of new registrations created a processing backlog for the Democratic-controlled city commission. The commissioners are the election officials in Philadelphia County, which Obama won by 461,000 votes in 2008. Then Hurricane Sandy shut offices for two days last week.

The head commissioner, Stephanie Singer, could not immediately be reached for comment on the backlog or whether the city had enough provisional ballots. 

At a few polling places in Philadelphia’s Northwest neighborhoods, workers were not bothering to ask voters to offer one of the forms of acceptable identification required by the controversial new law written and passed by a Republican legislature. The traditional system was in place: A voter offered his name, his registration was verified by a clerk, and he signed right next to the signature already in the system. 

In the city’s Tenth Ward, where turnout was over 70 percent in 1980 and where 99.02 percent voted for Obama, more than 200 voters were in line at the T. Simons Recreation Center when the polls opened at 7 a.m. There are five divisions which vote at the center, and more than 1300 had voted by 1 p.m., according to committee members there.

But some voters were concerned that poll workers demanded they show photo identification in order to vote, despite a court's ruling this fall that the law could not be imposed on voters in this election. The judge ruled that election workers could ask for the ID, but not turn away qualified voters who didn't have them.

Albert Hill, 56, of Philadelphia, said he argued for 10 minutes with a poll monitor who insisted he would not be allowed to vote unless he showed his photographic identification. He said he watched two African-American women leave the line in front of him because they were turned away for the same reason.

"I told her, "If you want to play this game, here is my wallet, and here’s my ID, but I don’t have to show it to vote'," said an angry Hill, a former bottling manufacturing company employee. "As of last night, the governor and the mayor of Philadelphia said I don’t have to show my ID to vote...I’m an American citizen. My vote means a lot to me. You're not going to take that away from me."  

Hill, an Obama supporter who has supported both Republicans and Democrats at different points in his life,  said he succeeded in voting Tuesday but is concerned that others were likely denied their rights.

In Milmont Park, Pa., Jacqueline Jrolf said she was surprised to see pre-printed signs hanging all over the Woodlyn Elementary School where she voted that demanded voters show their photo ID in order to vote. The signs referred to a state law that had been set aside and read: " New state law requires any voter to provide proof of identification"

 Jrolf, a ceramic artist and art teacher, said some voters were told to show ID and some weren't. She voted and then insisted that a poll station chief cross out the words on the signs. Jrolf said he sheepishly acknowledged that the law the signs alluded to was not in effect.

Jrolf visited a neighboring polling station, found the identical pre-printed signs,  and a polling chief there refused to remove them.

"It's voter supression," Jrolf said. "He knew it was inaccurate and he wasn’t going to do anything about it. This really upsets me. "

Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said his office gave very clear instructions to poll workers that they could ask but not demand voter identification, and believes such problems are very limited.

"We heard very few scattered reports of this and we really weren’t able to confirm any of it. I don’t know for sure what happened," Ruman said. "If poll workers said this, they were mistaken and this should not have happened. “

Carol D. Leonnig also contributed to this story.

 

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