Judge: No need to order more provisional ballots

Posted: November 07, 2012

A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge has refused to order the Board of Elections to deliver extra provisional ballots to all polling places in the city, saying reports of ballot shortages appeared to be exaggerated.

Pamela Pryor Dembe, president judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, rejected a petition from Organizing for America, a ground-level arm of the Democratic National Committee.

National Democrats have been leaning heavily on the City Commissioners, who oversee the Board of Elections, to send more provisional ballots based on reports that many people were not appearing in the poll books, and that polling places were running out of provisional ballots that would be their only alternative for voting.

"Many newly registered voters and even some experienced voters - including some with registration cards - were not listed in registration binders or supplemental books," reported the Committee of Seventy, the nonpartisan election watchdog group that supported the Organizing for America petition.

Seventy reported similar reports from voters across the city - "They registered to vote, received voter registration cards, went to vote today - only to learn their names were not in the poll books. As a result, they were required to vote by provisional paper ballot," read an e-mail from the organization sent just after 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Dembe said that, of 120 divisions that purportedly ran out, a third were contacted (the rest didn't answer phones calls) and only one was running low, confirming what the City Commissioners had been reporting all day in response to similar reports.

The one division had ordered a resupply from city election officials. Judge Dembe said she will deal with shortages, if any, on an individual basis.

Mayor Nutter, in a 6 p.m. City Hall news conference, said that to the best of his knowledge, no polling place had run out of provisional ballots. Instead, he said, election judges at some polling places had asked for extras in case they ran out.

Mayra Acevedo, 43, of North Philadelphia arrived to vote at Esperanza's Hunting Park Health and Wellness Center 6th and Cayuga streets at 7 a.m. Poll workers turned her away because her name was not on the list of registered voters, even though Acevedo said she registered to vote before the Oct. 9 deadline. She had not received her voter's card, but offered her driver's license as proof of identification.

"I said, 'There's got to be something you can do. I'm not leaving here until I vote,'" Acevedo said. "So I stayed there and made a big thing about it; they're not trying to help anybody." Poll watchers gave her a piece of paper with a phone number she could dial to file a complaint, but Acevedo said she heard more of the same. The city commissioner's office, when contacted by the Inquirer, said Acevedo had been "canceled since 2005," and was not eligible to vote. The commission employee declined to give his name.

Acevedo stayed for three hours at her polling location, lobbying poll watchers to let her vote. An election supervisor threatened to call the police. "I just laughed in their face," Acevedo said.

Acevedo returned to the polls Tuesday afternoon and, helped by new poll officials, was allowed to vote. She said election officials had provisional ballots on hand this time. Acevedo filled out an affidavit and voted on a traditional machine.

"Oh my God I'm so relieved," she said, though she added she's still waiting for her voter's card.

Will Gonzalez, who heads a coalition of Latino organizations, said there was a shortage of Spanish interpreters in the Hispanic community in Philadelphia, a complaint that has been raised in past years by other organizations.

Gonzalez, an attorney, said that the city election commission is required by law to provide interpreters.

"It's just as essential as having electricity for the voting machines," said Gonzalez, whose Ceiba Inc. coalition is considering now considering what action to take. "We've very upset about this."

Councilwoman Maria D. Quiñones Sánchez said the two most common complaints that she has heard from the Latino community are that voters were confused by changes in the polling sites and that may people were not included in the official list the eligible voters.

"Lots of people don't appear in the poll books," she said. "I'm getting calls at the officer from very angry people."

She said volunteers stayed out much of the night before the election trying in inform residents of about the changes in polling places, but many people were still confused.

With a heavy turnout across the Philadelphia region, election officials were scrambling to deal with another big issue - how best to instruct voters on the state's most recent rules on photo identification. Some election workers were apparently giving out bad information.

The Committee of Seventy agency said one of the biggest problems in the city and suburban Philadelphia counties was poll workers telling voters that they needed to have voter ID before they could cast ballots.

"There's a lot of honest misunderstanding, and maybe some not so honest," said Zack Stalberg, the committee's CEO. "There's a good deal of confusion."

The Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law with strict requirements for photo ID before people could cast ballots.

But the courts suspended the law for this election. Most polls workers followed the basic rule, asking voters if they had voter ID. If they did not, they would be handed information on the plan to require identification starting next year.

Stalberg said there numerous polling sites across the region that were handing out old information saying that voters needed to produce identification for the current election.

"There are reports from all over, both the city and the suburbs," Stalberg said, adding that his organization would try to determine whether the problems was part of any voter suppression effort.

Some polls were simply so swamped that election workers stopped asking about ID or trying to explaining the plan for requiring identification next year.

At a polling site in the South Philadelphia neighborhood near Graduate Hospital, a poll worker was not asking for identification. When asked by a visitor why she was not instructing voters, she apologized. She said she was busy and began telling those in line that the law required her to ask for ID even though showing ID wasn't a requirement to vote.

But at other polling sites in Philadelphia and the suburbs, workers made sure to follow the rules despite the heavy vote.

When voters entered Doylestown's District 6, volunteers asked if they had voter IDs. If they said "yes," that was fine. If they didn't have identification, they were handed information on a planned rule change for next year.

Assistant Philadelphia District Attorney Peter Berson said his office also had received complaints about misunderstandings of the voter ID law, but they had generally been quickly resolved by calling that election judge or sending a police officer to make sure the polling site followed the rules.

On a separate issue, Republican officials were encountering significant difficulty in efforts to make sure party loyalists were allowed to work in Philadelphia polling sites that for years were controlled only by Democrats.

Berson said early in the day, a number Republican poll watchers had difficulty being seated in at some Philadelphia sites.

In many heavily Democratic areas, the Republican Party had never before tried to have its own poll watchers. But when the party changed its leadership in the city this year, it developed a plan to staff as many sites as possible.

Berson said some Democrats who long ran the polling sites "resisted recognizing them," and the District Attorneys office needed to enforce court orders to get the Republican watchers into the polls.

Shortly before the polls opened this morning, GOP lawyers went to Philadelphia's Election Court after receiving about 60 phone calls from GOP poll inspectors appointed last week by Judge Dembe.

According to Linda A. Kerns, a lawyer for the state GOP committee, the GOP inspectors were denied access to the polling places by Democratic poll officials who said the minority inspector jobs were already filled.

Elizabeth Kotchian, an assistant district attorney at election court, said there was a tradition in overwhelmingly Democratic Philadelphia of Democrats appointing other Democrats as minority poll watchers when GOP watchers were not available.

Adam Bonin, a lawyer for the Democratic State Committee, said he was agreeing to orders placing the GOP minority inspectors "on a rolling basis" as their credentials are verified.

Kerns said Common Pleas Court Judge Milton Younge issued orders involving 35 inspectors and sheriffs deputies were dispatched to serve the orders at the polling places.

Bonin said he expected court orders affecting eight more GOP inspectors to be signed shortly for a total of 43.

Mayra Acevedo, 43, of North Philadelphia arrived to vote at Esperanza's Hunting Park Health and Wellness Center 6th and Cayuga streets at 7 a.m. Poll workers turned her away because her name was not on the list of registered voters, even though Acevedo said she registered to vote before the Oct. 9 deadline. She had not received her voter's card, but offered her driver's license as proof of identification.

"I said, 'There's got to be something you can do. I'm not leaving here until I vote,'" Acevedo said. "So I stayed there and made a big thing about it; they're not trying to help anybody." Poll watchers gave her a piece of paper with a phone number she could dial to file a complaint, but Acevedo said she heard more of the same. The city commissioner's office, when contacted by the Inquirer, said Acevedo had been "canceled since 2005," and was not eligible to vote. The commission employee declined to give his name.

Acevedo stayed for three hours at her polling location, lobbying poll watchers to let her vote. An election supervisor threatened to call the police. "I just laughed in their face," Acevedo said.

Acevedo returned to the polls Tuesday afternoon and, helped by new poll officials, was allowed to vote. She said election officials had provisional ballots on hand this time. Acevedo filled out an affidavit and voted on a traditional machine.

"Oh my God I'm so relieved," she said, though she added she's still waiting for her voter's card.

Will Gonzalez, who heads a coalition of Latino organizations, said there was a shortage of Spanish interpreters in the Hispanic community in Philadelphia, a complaint that has been raised in past years by other organizations.

Gonzalez, an attorney, said that the city election commission is required buy law to provide interpreters.

"It's just as essential as having electricity for the voting machines," said Gonzalez, whose Ceiba Inc. coalition is considering now considering what action to take. "We've very upset about this."

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez said the two most common complaints that she has heard from the Latino community are that voters were confused by changes in the polling sites and that may people were not included in the official list the eligible voters.

"Lots of people don't appear in the poll books," she said. "I'm getting calls at the officer from very angry people."

She said volunteers stayed out much of the night before the election trying in inform residents of about the changes in polling places, but many people were still confused.


Contact Mark Fazlollah at 215-854-5831 or mfazlollah@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Joseph Slobodzian contributed to this article.

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