The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.

RSS feed of this blog

Attorney general race thrusts provisional ballot into spotlight

RICHMOND—The minuscule margin of votes between Virginia’s two attorney general candidates has brought renewed attention to a relatively new aspect of voting in Virginia: the provisional ballot.

There were about 3,170 provisional votes cast in the attorney general’s race on Election Day, out of 2.2 million total votes. The difference between the two candidates is currently 164 votes.

Before 2012, voters that poll workers could not find on poll books could vote if they signed an affidavit that they were who they said they were and were registered to vote. But lawmakers felt that wasn’t secure enough.

The provisional ballot, created by state law in 2012, is how people vote if they show up at the polls and have no identification, or if there is some doubt about whether they are registered to vote or registered at the precinct where they have come to vote.

Provisional ballots are not counted on Election Day. Instead, each is put into a special, sealed envelope. The voter has three days to bring ID to the local registrar, or provide more information on why the vote was proper and should be counted.

Local electoral boards then vote on which ballots to count and which to reject—a process done before those ballots are opened or read.

The provisional ballot has gotten a lot of attention in the past week because the attorney general’s race between Democrat Mark Herring and Republican Mark Obenshain is so tight—and provisional ballots have helped narrow the gap.

In most localities, only a handful of ballots were provisional, and they didn’t shift things much. But Fairfax County—a county of more than a million people, which registered more than 300,000 votes in the attorney general’s race—had 489 provisional votes. The electoral board there allowed provisional voters to come in to give testimony through the weekend, and ultimately accepted 271 of those provisional ballots Tuesday night.

The result of all the local canvasses and provisional ballot counts was that the election this week swung toward Herring, although the 164-vote margin is so tiny a recount is likely. Both candidates are naming transition teams and fundraising for recount lawyers.

The race brought new attention to provisional ballots, and raised questions about what level of subjectivity might be involved in decisions to accept or reject those ballots.

Brian Schoeneman, the Republican secretary of Fairfax’s electoral board, said he understands why party lawyers have registered objections to how Fairfax handled its 489 provisional ballots.

But he said the board went by state law—which provides a Friday deadline for provisional voters due to ID issues, but not for those voting provisional for other reasons—and strove for fairness for as many voters as possible.

Fewer than 20 of Fairfax’s provisional ballots were caused by ID issues, Schoeneman said.

The majority, in fact, were voters who’d been overseas—for military or diplomatic reasons, usually—for the 2012 election and requested absentee ballots. They weren’t aware that the registrar would then send them an absentee ballot the next year as well, if the voters did not notify the registrar that they’d come back home.

Stafford County Registrar Greg Riddlemoser said state law and regulations are quite clear on how registrars and electoral boards around the state should handle provisional ballots.

The state’s voting rules require two basic things, he said: that you have ID, and that you are registered to vote in the precinct where you have shown up to vote.

For example, if you show up without an ID but you’re on the poll books, you vote provisional and bring your ID to the registrar before the Friday after Election Day. That, Riddlemoser said, is a fairly simple situation.

It’s a little more complicated when someone says they’re registered but aren’t in the poll book, or are found to be registered in a different precinct or county.

He also has to do research on people who say they thought they registered to vote at the DMV but aren’t showing up in the county’s records. DMV will provide information on its interactions with that person, Riddlemoser said, and if the DMV records show they did indeed try to register to vote, their ballot will likely be accepted. That accounted for two of Stafford’s provisional ballots this time.

Riddlemoser said Stafford had just one provisional ballot because of a lack of identification, and that person brought ID in later.

“It’s a very affirmative process. It’s not passive that you vote provisional and cross your fingers and hope somebody counts your ballot,” Riddlemoser said. “My staff and I spend Tuesday night and Wednesday finding that voter’s story. We think our job is to help the eligible get their votes counted.”

In the end, Stafford accepted 19 out of 32 provisional votes.

The rest got a letter from Riddlemoser explaining why their vote didn’t count. He includes a voter registration application, if warranted.

Schoeneman said some provisional voters had run afoul of a line in the voter registration form that asks if they’ve ever registered to vote elsewhere.

If you don’t answer, the application is rejected, he said. If that voter was formerly registered elsewhere in Virginia, electoral staff can research it, and Schoeneman said Fairfax did accept some of those. But they did not accept others in which the voter moved from another state and failed to note that on their application.

The original 2012 law creating provisional ballots was written by Spotsylvania Republican Del. Mark Cole, who is chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee.

Cole said this week he didn’t see anything in the handling of provisional ballots that would prompt a change to the law that governs them.

But Schoeneman thinks there needs to be a change for large localities like Fairfax.

The current system may work well for smaller jurisdictions, he said, but electoral boards in larger jurisdictions are overtaxed by reviewing every provisional ballot plus overseeing the canvass within the time deadlines.

Schoeneman said Fairfax had more than 2,000 provisional ballots in last year’s presidential election. He’d like to see more differentiation in the types of provisional ballots, he said, or a greater effort put on reviewing voter information earlier in the process.

“The whole provisional ballot process needs to be rethought,” Schoeneman said. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense the way we have it now.”

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028