"I registered in September!" fumed Piper Lincoln as she sat in a courtroom on the seventh floor of the City-County Building on Nov. 2, just minutes before the 8 p.m. deadline to vote. "I never received my voter-registration card." Assuming her story is true -- and there are many others like it -- something went very wrong in Allegheny County in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
Lincoln, a Carnegie Mellon University student trying to vote for the first time, said she arrived at her polling place around 2 p.m., waited in line for an hour and a half, and then learned she wasn't listed on the registry of voters there. She had the right to fill out a paper provisional ballot, but the polling place had run out. She returned at 5 p.m. and waited in line for more than an hour, only to learn that there were still no provisional ballots. That's when Lincoln joined several dozen students and nearly as many lawyers in heading Downtown to ask for an unprecedented extension of the polling deadline.
How did this first experience with democracy make her feel? "Pretty crazy," Lincoln said. "A lot of frustration. The kids that I was around all day were pretty upset. A lot of people talked about being disenfranchised."
Disenfranchisement was exactly what the provisional balloting system was meant to prevent. In years past, many voters were sent home from the polls, unable to vote if their names weren't in the registry of people assigned to that polling place. Under the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 implemented this year, anybody who claimed the right to vote could fill out a provisional ballot, and find out later if they were deemed eligible and tallied. Provisional balloting was supposed to serve as a fail-safe mechanism, and keep disputes from slowing the voting. In Allegheny County, it didn't work out that way.
The Allegheny County Elections Division's decision to send just 12 provisional ballots initially to most polling places, and 50 to a few others, contributing to problems like Lincoln's. But the fact that 8,005 people voted provisionally in Allegheny County, and that others apparently gave up trying, suggests that a faulty voter-registration process and inadequate training for elections judges were at least as much to blame. Those problems may be harder to fix.
As Republican and Democratic lawyers wrangled before Common Pleas Judge Stanton Wettick on Election Day, one nonpartisan attorney could hold his tongue no longer. "Hundreds of people have walked away" from the polls, attorney David Schlitz of the Election Protection coalition interrupted. "There are hundreds, hundreds of minority people who have been disenfranchised today, because they don't have a provisional ballot and they aren't in a position to get down here." (See sidebar, "Pale in Comparison.")
Republican lawyers alleged that elections judges at as many as 18 polling places had run out of provisional ballots and were illegally letting questionable voters use the voting machines. "Once [votes] are on the machines, they're gone," said David Porter, representing the Republicans. "We're being denied our right to challenge those votes."
At one polling site -- Burkett Elementary School in Robinson Township -- Judge of Election Sarah Drost was still searching for some middle ground in the provisional balloting game at 3 that afternoon. She'd had five requests for provisional ballots, but none of her dozen provisional ballots was useable -- the county had given her forms intended for other races in other precincts. She wanted to let her provisional voters use absentee ballots on the spot, but the county said no. Two lawyers from the county solicitor's office were on hand, assuring her the proper provisional ballots would be sent. But she had already waited hours for them.
Just 210 people used provisional ballots in the April 27 primary election, the first in which they were available. It's not yet clear what caused the much bigger Nov. 2 run on provisional ballots. "I suspect that when we open the provisional ballots, we'll see that a lot of them never tried to register to vote," says County Executive Dan Onorato, suggesting that some unregistered people, perhaps encouraged by the political parties, thought the paper ballots were a way for them to vote.
On Nov. 3, Onorato and County Councilor Dave Fawcett, a Republican, announced that they'd each pick a lawyer to find out what happened, and to suggest changes in the process. "We all feel fortunate that the entire presidential election didn't turn on what happened here," said Fawcett.
That may be little consolation to voters who streamed through election court nonstop on Nov. 2. Some said they'd recently moved within the county and filed change-of-address forms, but weren't listed on registries at their new polling places. Halfway-house residents said they'd registered en masse, but weren't listed. And hundreds of college students said they'd registered or reregistered locally, but were turned away at the polls.
Provisional balloting gummed up voting in Oakland. By 6 p.m. on Election Day, the line of CMU and University of Pittsburgh students at the Schenley Park golf course building snaked up and down the porch and into the rain. Students at its head said they'd waited an hour and 45 minutes already. Nathan Hershey, the district's Democratic committeeman, bought a stack of pizzas that went quickly. "We're going to have to get more food," he marveled. Alongside the provisional balloting system, local state Rep. Dan Frankel faulted a polling process antiquated in both machines and personnel. "They're not used to this kind of stress," he said of the pair of poll workers, each running a single machine. "I don't know how long they can process at this rate. This is going to take hours. I've asked [the Elections Division], get me more machines up here. I said, 'You're going to have some egg on your face. You have to come up here and see this.' It's just unprecedented. I was here two hours ago -- some of those [students] are still here. Most of them, it's their first voting experience. I hope it doesn't sour them on the experience."
County Executive Dan Onorato says he's not aware of any evidence that registration forms were ignored or mishandled. The Elections Division reported to him that the many new registrations were processed, he says. Is there a pile of returned mail indicating that registration cards didn't get to their destinations? "None that we're aware of," he says.
Nonetheless, for the many voters who didn't show up on the registry, Nov. 2 became a lesson in bureaucracy. Some voters were allowed to cast provisional ballots at their polling places, while throughout the day hundreds of others were sent Downtown. They had to get forms on the sixth floor of the County Office Building, then carry them across the street to the seventh floor of the City-County Building. There, they encountered a swarm of lawyers -- some from John Kerry's campaign, others from nonpartisan groups, and still others from the county -- who often debated over the proper procedure before giving sometimes confusing advice on how and where to vote. Most then showed identification to a judge, obtained judge's orders allowing them to provisionally vote, and left for their polling places, where they could cast paper ballots that might later be subject to challenges.
Some polling places were apparently no less confusing. The election court received several reports of elections judges misapplying new rules that require voters to show identification if they are new to their polling place. During early-morning voting, for instance, a Monroeville elections judge required all voters to show ID, while a Shaler elections judge demanded that all new voters use provisional ballots, according to calls received by the elections court.
The county's 1,317 elections judges aren't actual judges. They work two days a year to ensure that primary and general elections go well. Many are seniors who have done this for years, and Nov. 2 marked the first time most of them saw provisional voting. The elections judges "received several materials" explaining the new procedure, says Elections Division Manager Mark Wolosik. They had the option of attending several training sessions that included provisional-balloting instructions, but the county was unable to say how many attended.
At 5 p.m. on Election Day, Pitt graduate student Mark Walters was trying his luck at a second polling place. He said he had registered but never gotten any registration confirmation -- nor the location of his polling place -- but knew that Linden International Academy, a city elementary school in Squirrel Hill, was near his home. But he wasn't on the rolls here either.
"Provisional ballots are not counted immediately," a poll worker told Walters. "And unless the race is close they may not be counted at all."
"They may not be counted at all?" said Walters. "Let's do it."
Such incorrect information -- if Walters is found by the county board of elections to be registered, his vote will be counted -- wasn't enough to make him walk away. But by Nov. 8 he still hadn't tried to find out whether his extra effort to vote had mattered. Had he been put off voting altogether?
"I'll probably vote just to vote" in the next election, he said. "I don't think this would put me off, any more than I'm already skeptical about the whole process" following the disputed 2000 election. "I'm young. Maybe it'll be better as I get older. I want to be a writer. I think it has more efficacy than voting."
Walter's missing name wasn't an isolated incident here. Judge of Election Emily Swan, in her 17th year watching the vote in this school gymnasium, said the county rolls were suddenly missing the names of several people she'd seen vote every chance they got for the last decade.
On Nov. 2, the Democratic Onorato administration joined Democratic lawyers in petitioning to keep a single, impromptu Downtown polling place open until 9:30 p.m. Republican lawyers objected strenuously, saying the move violated state law. Nonetheless, at 7:36 p.m., just 24 minutes before polls closed, Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O'Toole signed an order written by the Democrats to extend voting Downtown. "They told me to sign something, I signed it," O'Toole explained. That allowed 82 people who had problems at the polls to cast provisional ballots.
Among them was Manlai Cheng, a CMU student who changed her citizenship from Chinese to American just a year ago. "To become a U.S. citizen took over a year," she said, as she waited in her Women for Kerry T-shirt for the impromptu poll to open. "And I'm being a U.S. citizen. I'm voting." A self-proclaimed "huge Democrat" who says she helped out at Kerry rallies, she said she registered to vote, was turned away at the polls, drove Downtown and parked illegally. "I'm not leaving without voting," she said.
Almost an hour later, she walked out after casting her first U.S. vote. "Finally!" she sighed. Then a look of worry crossed her face. "My car has probably been towed."