Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ogden Election Brouhaha

[Elections] Ogden's election brouhaha has caught the attention of a national voting rights researcher.

In his
blog, Scott Novakowski, a researcher for the democracy promoting organization Demos, points to Ogden's confusing November mayor election as further evidence that the country’s voting system remains broken, particularly when it comes to use of provisional ballots.

The Ogden mayor’s race was thrown into confusion when supporters of Mayor Matthew Godfrey submitted long lists of names to Weber County election officials challenging the right of hundreds of would-be voters to vote. The ACLU of Utah is currently investigating complaints that Ogden voters may have been turned away from the polls without the opportunity to cast a ballot.

As Novakowski points out in his blog, under 2002’s Help America Vote Act, everyone whose right to vote is challenged at the polls is supposed to be offered a “provisional” ballot.

“Under the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) states must offer "fail-safe" provisional ballots to all individuals who believe they are registered to vote but whose names do not appear on the rolls, who do not meet identification requirements, or whose eligibility is challenged at the polls. Such ballots are counted if election officials subsequently determine that the individual was a legitimate voter under state law.”

But, writes Novakowski, it isn’t unusual for election officials and poll workers to refuse provisional ballots--in large part because those running elections don't understand how the system is supposed to work.

In a report he completed this month for Demos, A Fallible 'Fail-Safe': An Analysis of Provisional Balloting Problems in the 2006 Election, Novakowski found problems with provisional ballots used nationwide during the 2006 election. Voter registration lists continued to be inaccurate during that election, meaning people that should have been on voter lists weren't. And a large percentage of complaints coming from that election were from voters denied a provisional ballot.

A bigger a problem may be “vague and inconsistent” standards adopted by states for when provisional ballots are counted, the Demos report says. While federal law sets a minimum standard for counting provisional ballots, many states established stricter rules that mean many provisional votes get tossed even after election officials determine the person casting the provisional vote should have been allowed to vote a regular ballot in the first place. Utah is listed among 13 states with rules, “that can create a significant, high, or very high risk of voting list error.”

Among Demos’ recommendations to fix the provisional ballot problem is for states to get rid of provisional ballots altogether—by passing election day registration laws. One such law will be proposed in January during the next session of the Utah Legislature. The sponsor is Democratic Rep. Neil Hansen, who—perhaps not coincidentally—represents Ogden. (Ted McDonough)

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