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Predictable, Predicted Problems Plaguing Pennsylvania Polling Place Participants

Pennsylvania was the most important state in the war on voting for a reason: they had virtually no other options for voters beyond in-person Election Day polling places (no early voting, no vote by mail or absentee voting without an excuse), and the state was the only plausible swing state where voter ID was passed by its legislature. Wisconsin had it as well, but a judge struck it down months ago. In Pennsylvania we got this hybrid ruling, where voters could be asked to show ID by a poll worker, but they wouldn’t have to fill out a provisional ballot if they didn’t have one.

This has predictably descended into chaos at the polls, mainly because, in Pennsylvania as in virtually every other state, poll workers are not well-trained and don’t understand the recently updated rules.

The Election Protection coalition’s voter hotline here began lighting up with complaints soon after polls opened. Some voters said they were upset about being asked for photo identification. Others said they had been turned away because they did not provide it.

“We’ve definitely gotten reports about voters being turned away,” Eric Marshall, co-director of the Election Protection coalition, told TPM. “We’ve had reports of people who have shown up, been asked, and when they didn’t show ID they were turned away.”

Individual poll workers in thousands of sites around a big state like Pennsylvania either don’t have the information or have misinterpreted it. And the thread-the-needle ruling, that you could ask for voter ID but couldn’t turn someone away without it, just invited these kinds of problems.

On another note, in Philadelphia, many voters are simply not showing up on the voter rolls, forcing the casting of provisional ballots.

“We think it’s a real concern,” said a staffer at The Committee of Seventy, which monitors elections in Philadelphia. Voter ID, he says, is “not the central problem in Philadelphia today: [it’s] the messy administration of this election. The phones are just ringing off the hook. We’re fielding calls about people who are not in the polling books.”

Some poll workers are not even instructing people that they can file provisional ballots, and other voters are reportedly just walking away in frustration.

Poll workers and Obama campaign volunteers are anxious at the Acelero Learning center (23rd and Montgomery), where an estimated fifteen registered North Philly voters have been forced to vote using a provisional ballot.

“Their names are not in the books,” says Gwen Howard, a clerk who has worked this precinct (32 ward, 15th division) for years. “Something different. Some have [registration] cards and are not in the books. And you know they come every four years…They were pretty upset.”

This is extremely fishy, and explanations range from administrative error all the way up to a systematic voter purge, with everything in between. UPDATE: Mother Jones is ready to call this an unreported voter purge and it’s hard to argue with them.

You can never know how many people these things affect, and how consequential they turn out to be. But in my book, one disenfranchised voter who wanted to vote is one voter too many. And problems specifically in Philadelphia always should set off alarm bells, as the city often provides the margin of victory in statewide elections.

This could all be solved by simply moving to a vote by mail system, which can be administered and strengthened so much more easily and more cost-effectively than this mess.

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David Dayen

David Dayen