Election board: Too many problems with provisional ballots

Many Brown County poll workers did their jobs well on primary election day. Several have served for decades, without fail. Brown County Election Board members said they are thankful for their dedication.

However, mistakes and inattention by a few may have led to a handful of ballots not being able to be counted, or being counted erroneously.

During their post-election meeting in May, the election board voted to reject 18 of the 21 provisional ballots cast in the primary.

A provisional ballot is offered to a voter when an election worker questions the voter’s qualification to vote in the precinct, such as the person not being listed in the poll book, not providing a photo ID or not living in the precinct.

Poll workers are supposed to set those ballots aside and allow the election board to review them at a later date.

But four of the provisional ballots — all from the Washington 3 precinct — were processed and counted with regular ballots on election day.

The election board can’t subtract them from candidates’ totals — even if those voters were not qualified to cast votes in Brown County. They just won’t count as additional votes on top of the totals already announced.

No races were close enough for those votes to change any outcome.

“They were valid votes that day, but as provisional ballots, they were rejected,” election board member Donald Moore said.

“You don’t know why they were challenged. They may have been valid,” said former county clerk Beth Mulry.

Missing or incomplete forms were problems with other provisional ballots, too.

Another six of the 18 ballots the election board reviewed and then rejected May 13 were not accompanied by a complete PRE-4 form which included the voter’s name, date of birth, current address, former address and the date the person moved — information that might help the county clerk find that voter in the registration system and verify whether or not he or she is properly registered.

The voter was to fill out that form and give it to election workers to include with the ballot. Some forms were incomplete or illegible, or missing altogether, board members said.

In 13 of 18 cases, Brown County Clerk Brenda Woods’ research using as much data as she was given showed that those voters likely did not have the right to vote in Brown County anyway. Most were registered in a different county and didn’t re-register here when they moved.

Also, no provisional voters furnished documents to the clerk’s office that proved they were eligible to vote at the precinct they visited on election day, Moore said.

Three provisional ballots were accepted. Two voters were incorrectly listed in the voter registration system; the other person’s address and signature appeared to match what was on file, though the last name didn’t. “Not voted in years” was written on that ballot envelope.

The high volume of voters may have contributed to some of the mistakes, speakers at the meeting said. Turnout for this primary was nearly 48 percent of registered voters, the highest in at least eight years.

Also, many of the poll workers during the primary were new.

In a letter to the election board, one poll worker brought up more concerns regarding the Washington 3 polling place at New Life Community Church, which had the highest turnout in the county.

In addition to provisional ballots there being processed and counted like regular ballots, poll worker Ken Birkemeier mentioned seeing breaks in protocol for the handling of absentee ballots and spoiled ballots; two instances of an election worker reaching into the ballot box by himself to retrieve stuck ballots, unaccompanied by a representative of the opposite political party; and other concerns about general organization and attention to detail.

The fellow poll worker’s actions “placed many aspects of the voting process at risk,” Birkemeier wrote, adding that he did not wish for the person to be publicly embarrassed, only that the concerns be kept in mind when preparing for future elections.

Woods shared the letter with the Democrat and Republican party chairs and said that they would address the problems.

Both parties provide the election workers at the polls; the county clerk’s office trains them.

“We’ve got too many errors in provisional ballots, in my opinion,” said election board member Rick Kelley. “We even saw some obstinance in an inspector that hung up twice on Donald (Moore)… ‘I’m running this and we’ll do it my way’ kind of thing.”

Mulry said attention during training has been a problem; the training materials are adequate.

“The provisional ballot instructions, there are step-by-step checklists. The people who are getting these books get them ahead of time … If they follow the instructions, it’s almost on a silver platter.”

“You have to pick and choose what you’re going to train (them on), because these people are already giving up a day or two days plus an evening … and it’s already so hard to get poll workers,” Mulry said.

“There’s only so much the trainer can do,” she said. “Eighty percent of them are probably going to do it very well.”

For instance, in Washington 1, two voters told election officials that they didn’t live in Brown County anymore, Woods said. Yet, they still wanted to vote here, so the inspector correctly challenged them and gave them a provisional ballot.

The election board rejected both of those ballots, plus another from the same precinct. All three of those voters had moved to Columbus, so they could have voted there.

Even if they knew they were in the wrong precinct to cast a legal ballot, “a lot of these people were saying ‘I just want to vote,’” Woods said.

New equipment coming

Voters who choose to cast a ballot early in November may get to work with some new equipment.

The election board has approved the purchase of an electronic poll book for use in absentee voting.

It will cut down on the amount of paperwork election workers have to process, Brown County Clerk Brenda Woods said.

Instead of filling out an absentee voting application on paper, early voters will be able to do so on the electronic book, which will also pull up their precinct information.

Right now, those ballot applications have to be scanned and attached to the ballots and then the records are inputted into the voter registration system.

With high volume also expected for the general election, the electronic book would be a big help to the absentee voting workers, Woods said.

Election deadlines

VOTER REGISTRATION: It opened again on May 17. You have until Oct. 11 to register to vote if you want to cast a ballot in the November general election.


Democratic and Republican parties have until noon June 30 to choose candidates to fill open ballot slots. That is also the deadline for independent or “minor-party candidates” to file a petition of nomination — the first step toward getting on the ballot; and it is the deadline for the Libertarian Party to nominate candidates to fill ballot vacancies.

Write-in candidates have until noon July 5 to declare their intent to the county clerk’s office.

School board candidates must file their paperwork between July 27 and Aug. 26.

For more information, call the county clerk’s office at 812-988-5510.

Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.