Friday, July 11, 2014

Provisional Ballots By The Numbers

Last week, I participated in a meeting regarding PEW's Election Performance Index in Chicago.

The Index takes a swing at one of my favorite concepts--post something and measure it, and it will improve.

The Index, then, results in an academic way to look at elections--measuring several outcomes (such as average time waiting to vote) to drive comparisons, conclusions, and discussions.  The Index might, for instance, identify common pain points that many states encounter when administering elections.  The Index also helps begin to answer the question, "How are we doing?"

Kansas falls roughly near the middle in the Index and it's worth considering why.  One reason simply is that the categories themselves are subjective.  They aren't controversial but there may eventually be better categories to measure.  You can isolate some measurements and Kansas either soars or is at the bottom end of the range.

Another reason for the overall score is that turnout dropped, 2012 from 2008.  The major reason for the drop, though, came because it was a rare alignment where a presidential election didn't also feature a United States Senate race for Kansas.  The last time this happened, in 16 B.C. (no not really, but it was a long time ago), the turnout was less than it was in 2012, actually.

"Measure" is the key thing here. 

Without data, a category can't be included.  Much of the data comes from the Election Administration Commission's post-election survey.  That data is self-reported by jurisdictions and states.  Kansas has 105 counties, each reporting and rolled up to the state level, and, while most counties report, some don't report or have incomplete data.  That, also, impacts Kansas' score.

Beyond that, it's worth asking further, why else are we trending lower than the median?

It's not this simple, but one major reason is the policy related to provisional ballots in Kansas and, specifically, Johnson County.

I thought I'd give some insight into the categories of provisional ballots and how they are addressed by walking through the 2012 presidential election provisional ballot summary.

There are many legitimate reasons provisional ballots are cast in Kansas.  Contrary to urban legend, any provisional ballot envelope that can be opened, by law, is opened following approval by the Board of County Canvassers.  Provisional ballots aren't included only if they make a difference in a race--they are added in if the race difference is one or one million.

I've often said that provisional ballots represent one of those phrases that needs context.  Provisional ballots that protect voters' rights--good!  Provisional ballots that cause a race to flip after the canvass sound dirty.

I take that further, in fact.

A provisional ballot that protects voters' rights--good!  A provisional ballot issued because we could have prevented it--bad!

If we can get voters to the correct polling place, or if we make sure our workers fully understand photo identification requirements, or if we can help voters get registered properly in the first place, we can lower the number of unnecessary provisional ballots.

We've done this very thing, and in fact our entire Joco-Polo (think "Marco Polo") effort to get people to the correct polling place was an Election Center Best Practices winner in 2009.

Still, there is a point of view that a provisional ballot wouldn't be issued unless there was a breakdown somewhere. 

I guess that's fair--a provisional ballot is issued when there is a question about a voter's eligibility at a particular moment for a particular election. 

I'm proud to say that in my tenure at the election office, I've never experienced a voter who had an issue at a polling place but was not offered a provisional ballot.  Our election workers excel at being the advocate for the voter (the voter concierge, if you remember, in my earlier post about "The Year of The Voter.")

Our belief is that we never want a voter leaving a polling place, unless going to another polling place, without voting or being offered the chance to cast a provisional ballot.

On the other hand, many ballots become provisional but were never cast as provisional ballots. 

For instance, voters who don't have signature matches on their ballots by mail don't have their ballots rejected.  Rather, we take those into the Board of Canvassers as provisional ballots, recommend they not be counted by law, and the Board approves the recommendation.

Here is the rundown on the key categories from November 2012 (I've pasted the actual sheets at the bottom of this post):

In this election, we recommended 5,878 ballots to be counted.  More to the point, that's 5,878 envelopes to be opened.  Only when opening them, do we know what is inside the envelope.
  1. Of the 5,878, the most common reason for a provisional ballot that can be counted is that the voter moved or changed his/her name and completed the required registration information (the back of the provisional ballot is a registration form).  In this election, nearly half (2,624) of those recommended to count fit in this category.  This number is usually much larger in a presidential election, simply because of the number of voters but also because many infrequent voters don't think about voting until election day.
  2. 917 ballots were in a category that WE made provisional.  The voter returned a ballot by mail and signed the ballot, but didn't complete the address line as required by law.  We worked with Secretary of State Kris Kobach's office to request and obtain a 2012 Attorney General opinion that recommends these be counted.  Previously, these would not have been counted.  We'd advocated this position for years and are pleased that this minor technical error doesn't invalidate the vote.
  3. The next number is a bit frustrating, really--771 voters received an advance ballot but voted at the polls instead.  Now, sometimes, I think, voters worry that the mail return won't be fast enough for the ballots to reach us by 7 p.m. election day (they can be dropped off, 24 hours a day), but often I believe these are voters who simply applied for an advance ballot so they had a sample (or even a souvenir, as I believe the case was in 2008).
  4. 478 voters went to the wrong polling place and cast a ballot that can at least be partially counted (for any races that apply to them, such as president).  This number had dropped by 75 percent since our Joco-Polo voting location campaign and tools were rolled out in 2008.
  5. 412 ballots were "should have been perfect," a kind way of saying, for whatever reason, the voters didn't sign the pollbooks and vote.  Sometimes, names hide, particularly in the cases of apostrophes and such in names.
  6. In 268 cases, we had provisional ballots issued for one of these categories and all was correct, except that the voter's ID had not been marked as verified.  We had these in a separate category because we didn't know the ID had not been verified, only that it had not been recorded as such.  Therefore, we recommended these be counted (we cite the legal reference to any recommendation in the right column of the canvass sheets).
  7. "FWAB" is the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot.  These essentially are military voters who can fax or email their ballots.  These came in late on election day and have to be hand-counted because the ballots cannot be scanned.  They could have been included in election night totals but the results would have been later in the evening.  We had 214 of these.
  8. In 103 cases, a voter did not submit photo ID but did before the canvass.  Most of these were ballots by mail.
  9. 68 times, we issued a replacement ballot in cases where the original was damaged or lost.
  10. We have a form for those voters whose name on their ID and registration don't match, but they want to keep it that way.  Usually, these are women who have different last names after life changes.  In lieu of ID, they can complete an affidavit that explains the name discrepancy.  19 voters did this.
  11. In presidential elections, because voters who move can sometimes get caught between states' voting requirements, there is a provision where voters can get a "presidential only" ballot.  4 voters fell in this category.
Additionally, on the "count side," we have 174 voters who preferred to vote on paper.  These weren't provisional voters, but we have to verify these voters were eligible to vote (perfect voters at refer to voters where everything went the way it should--recognizing that everyone in Johnson County is perfect in their own way).  We don't bring these envelopes for approval by the Board of Canvassers to open, but we do wait until the canvass to process these ballots.  We could add them in during the week leading to canvass but I prefer to have results updated once only after election night.

On the not valid side, we had 2,136 ballots where we recommended the ballot envelopes not be opened.
  1. Most--1,330--were because the voter wasn't registered.
  2. In 300 cases, the voter had an advance ballot by mail and did not sign and address the envelope or did not complete the registration form on the back of the provisional envelope at the polls.
  3. We check every signature on those voting by mail and 182 did not match their voter record.
  4. 76 voters did not provide a government-issued photo ID.  In all cases in this election, these were ballots by mail.
  5. Sometimes voters use a different envelope when mailing back the ballot or put two ballots in one envelope.  We can't count these, and we had 71 of them.
  6. 25 voters, when casting a provisional ballot, used an invalid address as their registration address.
  7. Remember those voters who get a ballot by mail but vote at the polls?  15 voted both ways, likely because they either forgot (that happens) or they were worried we wouldn't get the ballot in time.  We count the first ballot cast.
  8. There is a Attorney General letter with a ruling that persons who act as Power of Attorney cannot vote on someone's behalf.  We had 14 of those cases.
  9. In 13 situations, a voter had some issue when voting and cast a second ballot provisionally.
  10. Again, remember the voters who requested paper but we have to verify that they were qualified?  In 7 cases, they weren't eligible to cast a vote and should have voted provisionally.
  11. 2 voters voted overseas ballots but didn't meet the eligibility to do so.
The rejected provisional ballots represent about 0.7 percent of those cast.   Provisionals, overall, are about 3 percent of the total, and that's typical.

Here then, dear reader, if you're still there, is the breakdown as presented.