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Our Votes Don’t All Need to Be Counted if the Election Isn’t Close

That's pretty much the New York Times analysis.

Provisional ballots will also come into play if a huge turnout causes long lines in Ohio, leading lawyers to ask the courts to keep polls open late. When polls are kept open after hours, the ballots cast must be provisional.

Problems with the ballots will not affect the outcome if the race is not close...

If they are counted at all, provisional ballots don't get counted until after the election has usually been called.

Ohio officials cannot count such ballots for 10 days after the election, while in Florida, officials must count them two or three days after polls close...

Though the Ohio Secretary of State, Jennifer L. Brunner, has standardized the methods of determining which provisional ballots count—previously this was determined county by county—there has been no concerted effort to stem the use of ballots that don't get counted until after most elections have been decided. 

In 2004, 2006 and this year’s primaries, Ohio, unlike most other states, increased the percentage of provisional ballots used by voters. In the 2004 presidential election, which hinged on Ohio, the margin between the candidates was about 118,000 votes, of 5.7 million cast. Of those, more than 158,000 were provisional ballots.

Even more of these ballots will be cast in Ohio on Nov. 4, voting experts predict, because many newly registered voters may bring the wrong form of identification to the polls, failing to comply with the state’s new voter law that requires all voters to show government-issued identification or an approved document with a voter’s name and address. Others may go to the wrong polling place, or show up at the polls only to find that they are not listed on the state’s new computerized voter registration list, which has already been the subject of intense partisan wrangling.

Do you see the elephant in the room? No, not there.


Thousands of voters across the country must reestablish their eligibility in the next three weeks in order for their votes to count on Nov. 4, a result of new state registration systems that are incorrectly rejecting them.... 

The scramble to verify voter registrations is happening as states switch from locally managed lists of voters to statewide databases, a change required by federal law and hailed by many as a more efficient and accurate way to keep lists up to date.

But in the transition, the systems are questioning the registrations of many voters when discrepancies surface between their registration information and other official records, often because of errors outside voters' control.

The issue made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which yesterday blocked a challenge to 200,000 Ohio voters whose registration data conflicted with other state records.

It is impossible to know how many voters are affected nationwide. There are no reports of large-scale problems in Virginia, Maryland or the District, but the trouble is cropping up in many states.

In Alabama, scores of voters are being labeled as convicted felons on the basis of incorrect lists.

Michigan must restore thousands of names it illegally removed from voter rolls over residency questions, a judge ruled this week.

Tens of thousands of voters could be affected in Wisconsin. Officials there admit that their database is wrong one out of five times when it flags voters, sometimes for data discrepancies as small as a middle initial or a typo in a birth date. When the six members of the state elections board -- all retired judges -- ran their registrations through the system, four were incorrectly rejected because of mismatches. 

If you prod the elephant you find out this is a vast new frontier of voter disenfranchisement.

The law requires each voter to have a unique identifier. Since 2004, new registration applicants have had to provide a driver's license number or the last four digits of a Social Security number to register (voters who don't have them are assigned a unique number by the state). States are required to try to authenticate the numbers with motor vehicle records and the Social Security Administration database.

But databases are prone to errors such as misspellings and transposed numbers, and applicants are prone to make mistakes or write illegibly on applications. The Social Security Administration has acknowledged that matches between its database and voter-registration records have yielded a 28.5 percent error rate.

States vary in how they treat applicants whose records don't match, and experts say rules in some states could prevent thousands of eligible voters from casting ballots or having their votes counted in November. Those who don't match in Oregon, for example, can cast a ballot, but their vote for president or any other federal race on a ballot won't be counted. There are currently about 9,500 voters in Oregon who fall into this category, but a state spokesman says matching issues will be resolved with most of them before November so they can vote in federal races. Fewer than 500 voters were affected by this during the state's primary.

"One of the big problems is that states just haven't been very transparent about how they're operating their new database," says Dan Tokaji, law professor at the Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. "So it's really hard to tell how this is going to play out. A few states have implemented overly stringent matching rules, the consequence of which could be that some citizens' votes don't get counted."

In the 2000 election, about 1.3 million registered voters said they didn't vote due to trouble with their registration, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey, which didn't elaborate on the nature of the troubles. In an election when record numbers of new voters are expected to participate, experts say the number of voters who find they can't cast a ballot this year could be higher.

Voter registration databases are central to the democratic process in every state except North Dakota -- which doesn't require registration. Everywhere else, the registration roll is the gatekeeper determining eligibility to vote in an election. Voter lists aren't used just for elections, however. Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, before statewide databases were mandated, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft reportedly ordered that voter registration lists be checked for links to terrorists.

Until HAVA, each county or election district in most states maintained its own voter list, which often resulted in duplicate registrations when voters moved and re-registered -- creating opportunities for fraud. States were supposed to consolidate their lists by Jan. 1, 2004, but most got an extension to 2006. Creating a statewide system that interfaces with multiple county registration databases built by different companies proved to be difficult. About a dozen states missed the 2006 deadline, and four were sued by the Justice Department.

There have also been a number of issues involving companies that make the systems. Some states built databases in-house; others outsourced to companies like Election Systems & Software (which also makes voting machines), and the Bermuda-based Accenture. Accenture was hired by several states, but lost contracts in all but one for missed deadlines and other issues.

Colorado -- a crucial swing state -- completed its $13 million database this year after firing Accenture in 2005. A little-known Oregon company named Saber, which has created databases for 11 states, replaced it. Accenture retained its contract in Pennsylvania, though problems occurred there as well. In 2005, one state official called the $20 million system "seriously if not fatally flawed."

HAVA requires databases to have "adequate technological security" but doesn't specify details, such as encryption. And although the databases interface with every county election office, access controls haven't been developed in some states.

A 2006 audit of Florida's registration system found that the state hadn't established adequate access levels for various users and had no process for maintaining or monitoring audit logs, making records vulnerable to theft and manipulation. A June 2008 follow-up found some of the same problems. One former election office employee, for example, still had access to the database three months after leaving his job.

In 2006 in Denver, electronic poll books made by Sequoia Voting Systems crashed extensively, causing long lines that resulted in an estimated 20,000 voters leaving polls without voting. During Georgia's primary this year problems with e-poll books made by Diebold Election Systems led to voting delays up to three hours long.

It is good to know that possibly 1/3 of the electorate may have voted early this year and that Obama has assembled the United States' "largest law firm" to monitor the election. The potential problems are so many that I tend to think the best hope is for Obama to win by such a landslide that his victory will be undeniable.

In other words: GOTV!

(h/t @andrewjcohen)

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