Justino Navarro knows his division. As Democratic committeeman for the Spring Garden neighborhood’s 8th Ward, 26th Division, that’s his job. Before elections, he and his helpers go door to door checking the names on the list, making sure voters will show up to vote. During elections, he hangs out at the division’s polling place and makes sure everything goes smoothly. This Election Day, Navarro says, things did not go smoothly.
Sixty of the 938 people who showed up to vote, he says, arrived only to discover their names weren’t listed in the poll books.
Things like this happen in every election — polling places get moved, people go to the wrong ones — but not, Navarro says, like this.
Navarro began looking for patterns among those whose names had gone missing. Many, he found, were newly registered voters or new to his division. Several, using smartphones, showed him that their names appeared on the state’s SURE voter-registration database as registered at that location. But some cases defied that trend: There was an elderly man who Navarro knew voted in every election and who had lived in the same place for years. He wasn’t on the list, either. “This man, he takes voting very seriously, you know?” Navarro recalls. “He was very upset.”
Navarro wasn’t the only one reporting such problems — similar concerns were being echoed around the city.
“Something was wrong,” Navarro says. “And my concern is that somebody get to the bottom of this.”
This Sunday, word came from City Commissioner Al Schmidt — one of the three elected officials who oversee elections in Philadelphia — that some 27,000 people were forced to vote by provisional ballot in last week’s election, just less than double the 2008 figure. The numbers seem to confirm what voting-rights advocates, election monitors and this paper had been reporting — and election officials had been denying — for a week: Something, somewhere, went very wrong on Election Day.
The questions that haven’t been answered yet are: What went wrong, and why? It’s shaping up to be quite the whodunit.
The City Commissioners have promised to investigate. But they aren’t the only ones looking for answers — and, if the last few weeks are any indication, that’s probably a good thing. There are, after all, many suspects in this mystery, and the Commissioners are among them.
The backlog: Just after the Oct. 3 voter-registration deadline, the City Commissioners announced that they had a backlog of tens of thousands of registration applications. Concerns that registrations wouldn’t be processed in a timely manner were raised by watchdog groups, but were largely brushed aside. On Nov. 1, just five days before the election, the commissioners announced the backlog was gone — good news that somewhat glossed over important details, like how voters would be notified as to whether their registrations were complete. Normally, the commissioners alert people who have submitted incomplete registrations by mail, giving them a chance to correct them; less than a week before the election, there was no time for that.
Angela Lee, who registered voters for the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group, says, “A lot of the students we registered didn’t get their voter-registration card in time,” even though her group filed registrations directly with the City Commissioners on a daily basis.
Schmidt, who has fielded most of the questions about the backlog, assured reporters that every properly filed registration was processed and printed in the poll books — either in the main book, printed two weeks before the election, or in a supplemental book printed on the Friday before the election.
But Schmidt is relying on staff reports until the commissioners complete their own investigation. And while elections may or may not have been run “capably” — as a news report by the Inquirer stated in a bizarrely opinionated moment on Sunday — we can’t know before that investigation is complete.
Assuming the registrations were processed, the delay caused by the backlog raises some possibilities: If we assume, as Schmidt has asserted, that some election officials didn’t know about or neglected to check the supplemental books — and if there were more names than usual in those books — that might have contributed to more provisional ballots being cast. But the explanation seems unlikely, or at least incomplete. Navarro, for example, took great offense at the implication that election judges were partly to blame: “I can only speak for [my] division, but they checked every page of both books and the names weren’t there.”
Voter error: On the same day that Schmidt announced the number of provisional ballots that had been cast, he offered the Inquirer a few explanations, including the possibility that people had gone to the wrong polling places. One-third of all divisions in the city, he noted, had been moved since 2008. But this doesn’t explain why election watchdogs, as well as this paper, received dozens if not hundreds of reports of voters who confirmed their polling locations in the state’s database. And the fact that so many students, many voting for the first time, were forced to cast provisional ballots — 766 of 6,061 voters in eight divisions near Temple University, according to Lee — doesn’t lend much credence to this theory. If their polling places had moved since ’08, first-time voters wouldn’t know the difference.
Mystery purge? None of the possibilities offered by the City Commissioners explains why residents who’ve voted for decades would have suddenly been removed from polling books, as Navarro and others report. Navarro suspects that some sort of “purge” occurred before the election. Asked if she knew if such a purge had occurred, City Commissioner Stephanie Singer said no.
Glitches and hitches: There remains the possibility that discrepancies originated from a technological glitch, as Schmidt suggested to the Inquirer, on the part of the third-party company that prints the poll books. It’s also possible the problem originated in the state’s database — not at the Commissioners office. But the latter theory is questionable: Voters and watchdogs that spoke with CP reported no cases in which the database was incorrect.
There’s also the possibility that a move by the City Commissioners earlier this year to eliminate “voter slips” contributed to the high number of provisional ballots. The slips, a semi-formal alternative to provisional ballots that allowed people to vote on machines even if their names weren’t in the books, were identified by Schmidt, in a report earlier this year, as having possibly contributed to voting irregularities.
So, whodunit? We just don’t know. And we might not for some time: Schmidt and Singer have both promised to investigate. But the two are in the midst of a political feud since Schmidt organized Singer’s ouster as chair of the City Commissioners the day after the election, and the public can expect little cooperation between the two. If Commissioner Anthony Clark, who has never returned an email or phone call from City Paper, is preparing to play a pivotal role in the investigation, he has not so indicated.
Watchdog groups, meanwhile, are watching — warily. “They need to make a dispassionate investigation and not prejudge the outcome,” says Ellen Kaplan of the Committee of Seventy.
Marian Schneider, of the Advancement Project, was unsatisfied by Schmidt’s suggestions that the problems might be attributable largely to errors by voters and election boards. “I don’t agree with that,” says Schneider. “There’s plenty of blame to go around.”