QUESTIONS — SOME RAISED some time ago about Gov. Mitt Romney’s tax returns, for an old-fashioned example — have a habit of fading away as bigger news comes along.
This edition of Naked City will go to press while much of Philadelphia is still hung over from celebrating President Obama’s re-election on Tuesday night. But an easy win for Pennsylvania Democrats could also mean that the watchful gazes that fixed on Philadelphia’s election will be gone — and maybe too soon.
The victory, it turns out, came despite widespread Election Day disorder in Philly. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of voters across the city, both newly registered and veteran, were not found on the voter rolls and were forced to cast provisional paper ballots that may not be counted. “Their names are not in the books,” said Gwen Howard, a clerk who has worked the 32nd 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.”
Across the state, confusion over the suspended voter-ID laws alongside misleading robocalls and chain text messages prompted complaints. But incomplete voter rolls and provisional ballots wreaked havoc in precincts across Philly. At some polling places, it was just a handful of provisional ballots; at others it was 100 or more, in some cases representing as much as 20 percent of participating voters at a given division. Just about every judge of elections City Paper spoke with said they’d had to deal with provisionals, and that it had never, to their knowledge, come up at the polling place before.
NEW OR NEWLY relocated voters were the most impacted. Caitlin Conyngham, 27, for example, says she updated her registration after moving, but was rejected because of what the City Commissioners, the elected officials who manage city elections, described as a clerical error: Her street name had been entered into the computer system, by hand, incorrectly. She appealed and was sent a voter registration card, issued Oct. 22.
“I went today to go vote and I was not on the roll at all,” says Conyngham, who votes at West Philadelphia High School. “They had to call the city, and I spoke with someone from [Commissioner] Stephanie Singer’s office. She said, ‘This is really strange. I have you as a registered voter … but you don’t have a polling place attached to your name.’”
Voters like Jesse Seitel, 27, who cast a provisional ballot at 52nd and Willow, were angry. “I had the registration that had been sent to me, and it had my name and street address on it. I got there, and my name wasn’t in the book. It was total bullshit.”
Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez reported similar problems in the city’s 43rd Ward, including six divisions being moved, she said, without notice to voters. Volunteers for her office were out until 11 p.m. Monday informing voters of the change.
Polling places near Temple and the University of Pennsylvania, especially, saw problems.
Judge of elections Christine Abbot in Ward 27, Division 3 (near Penn), said that more than 100 voters, largely students, cast provisional ballots.
“I personally worry that [the ballots] will get tossed,” Abbot told City Paper, blaming the mess on the ouster of controversial Commission chair Marge Tartaglione. “I think it might be related to the fact that Marge Tartaglione was scooted out of there. ...The new commissioner, Stephanie Singer, is a very nice person, but innocent to the reality of the city.”
Good-government watchdog the Committee of Seventy had raised concerns in recent weeks that the City Commissioners were not processing last-minute voter registrations quickly enough. Seventy president Zack Stalberg wrote in a letter that up to 20,000 registrations were still unprocessed in mid-October, “raising the possibility that potential voters will not be registered — or know whether they are registered — in time to vote on Election Day.”
BUT IT WASN'T just new voters, and it wasn’t just college areas. Heather Kelly, 34, has been judge of elections at the Northeast’s 66th Ward, 46th Division, since she was 18 years old, and she’s never seen an election like this one. Longtime voters, people she’d seen year after year, had suddenly vanished from the poll books. She said calls to the City Commissioners’ office and Committee of Seventy didn’t provide much help.
“One in particular is a police officer that’s been up here for 10 years. I know him, I see him every day, and he had his driver’s license here. But he’s not in my book.” He was told to go vote at his address from 10 years back. Same with an elderly woman, whose sister appeared in the book while she did not. Her old polling place was on South Seventh Street. “I don’t like sending people down there. And they’re older women,” Kelly said. All told, she said, more than 20 people had left without voting; a few submitted provisional ballots but were warned they likely wouldn’t count.
Precincts scattered across the city went through far more provisional ballots than anyone can remember ever being needed in the past; normally, each division is given 75. A Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group staffer, Vanessa Wright, monitoring a 20th Ward polling place near Temple at 10th and Oxford (100-plus provisionals cast), told CP she watched as the division ran out of paper ballots: Fifteen people waited an hour for more to arrive. She was concerned that first-time voters would be demoralized.
And provisional ballots are not always counted. Out of 20,284 provisional ballots cast statewide during the 2008 general election, more than half were ultimately rejected, according to data provided by the Pennsylvania Secretary of State that did not include numbers from Philly and two other counties. Provisional ballots are not counted until days after the election, at which point officials check each ballot and decide whether it is valid.
THE CITY COMMISSIONERS down-played the problem to media and the election court, and Common Pleas Court Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe rejected a request from Organizing for America, the grassroots arm of the Democratic National Committee, to order the commissioners to deliver extra provisional ballots to polling places.
Of the three City Com-missioners, Al Schmidt was the only one (not for the first time) to return City Paper’s request for comment. Schmidt acknowledged a deluge of complaints, but emphasized that he and his staff were responding throughout — and said that many of the complaints he received disappeared upon investigation.
When he assembled a list of 10 polling places where voters hadn’t appeared on lists, he said, five election judges reported either having had the “supplemental” books in which later registrations had been kept all along or “couldn’t find them, but did before they called.” Of the next three of the remaining five, “The response was, ‘What are you talking about?’ And then, ‘We didn’t see them at first, but now we have them.’”
“We’re like a fire department,” said Schmidt. “We have to put out actual fires, and when we have a few actual fires and a thousand false alarms, we have to respond to every alarm.”
Given City Paper’s and watchdogs’ findings from polling places across the city, CP asked Schmidt whether he was aware of any systemic problem. The answer was “No.”