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Poll Vault

Despite obstacles, Allegheny County voters largely cleared the bar

At the Allegheny County Election Court, where election-day disputes are argued, the biggest challenge for the lawyers and judges was keeping themselves entertained.

As Election Day wound down, one attorney began prank-calling elections officials. Another leaned back in his chair and said, "I thought this was going to be an absolute nightmare." 

There were plenty of reasons for concern, starting with the fact that presidential elections typically generate additional turnout — and complaints. There was also confusion over the state's "Voter ID" law, and rumors that Tea Partiers planned to monitor polling places in mostly black districts.

But few complaints reached the courtroom. Voters in Homestead were allegedly asked to produce photo IDs before they entered their polling place — both parties denied responsibility — and there was a dispute over emergency absentee ballots sent in from local hospitals. But despite initial concerns from Republicans, county election officials say that the votes have gone unchallenged. And for the most part, "There were few hiccups," says John Gotaskie, an attorney for Fox Rothschild who worked on behalf of the Democratic Party that day.

"For the most part, the [county's] elections division deserves a huge debt of gratitude," Gotaskie adds. 

Still, the voting process wasn't entirely problem-free. One symptom of problems was the number of votes cast by provisional ballot — a paper ballot used when a voter's eligibility is unclear or disputed at the polling place. Allegheny County saw 3,900 provisional ballots cast, according to election officials — a 39 percent increase over the 2,808 provisionals cast in 2008, when overall turnout was higher. (Still, the 2012 total was well below the 8,513 provisional ballots cast in 2004, the first time provisionals were used.)

Provisional ballots can be problematic because they are often later tossed out on technicalities. In 2008, only 268 provisional ballots, or about 9 percent of those cast, were counted in full; the rest were either thrown out entirely, or were counted only partially.

This year, much of the concern about provisional ballots focused on polls at the University of Pittsburgh.

PennPIRG, a statewide organization that monitored the election on behalf of students, says that roughly 3 percent of the 4,786 ballots cast at Pitt's student union and Soldiers & Sailors Hall were provisional ballots. One potential reason: According to Mark Wolosik, manager for Allegheny County's Elections Division, the county changed one campus polling location after some registration cards were sent out in September. 

Wolosik said the change was made at the request of a student organization, and that notices were sent out to all the registered voters on campus. And while there were last-minute registrations at Pitt, those were included in supplemental rolls sent to each polling place. 

Still, says Angela Lee, a PennPIRG program associate, students got little help from poll workers in checking their eligibility. Instead, she says, "What seems to have happened was that when they didn't see names on the rolls, they gave out provisionals." 

Wolosik, whose office had just started to count provisionals as of press time, could confirm only 79 provisional ballots from Pitt polling places. 

It's not unusual for there to be some confusion at the polls catering to nomadic student populations, both organizers and officials say. But there were scattered reports of voters being dropped from rolls elsewhere.

"We got a lot of complaints for people who had been voting in the same place for years, and weren't on the voter rolls," says Sara Rose, a Pittsburgh-based staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. And Rose says it's important to find out what happened in Oakland and elsewhere, even though the election's outcome seems assured. 

"We do want to make sure this doesn't happen again," she says. "You don't know what the next election is going to be like."

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