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Florida motor-voter foul-up means no primary ballots for some

Hundreds of Palm Beach County voters got a big surprise when they went to the polls March 15 to cast ballots in the presidential primaries. They couldn’t.

The problem most likely stemmed from the way Florida handles motor-voter registrations and affected people who had updated their voter information while obtaining or renewing their driver license since the previous primary elections, county officials said. Because of the way the form is set up, these voters apparently didn’t indicate their party preference, leading the state to change their party affiliation, unbeknownst to the voters, from Democrat or Republican to “no party affiliation.”

Because primaries are closed in Florida, meaning they are limited to people registered to that particular party, these voters were not allowed to vote in the presidential primaries. Those who insisted they were party members were given provisional ballots but those ballots still were not counted when the voters’ registration came back as “no party affiliation.”

“I am working with the (Palm Beach County) Tax Collector and Supervisor of Elections to correct this very disturbing occurrence,” Palm Beach County Commissioner Steven Abrams said Monday in a note to colleagues and county staff requesting time to discuss the issue at today’s county commission meeting.

Abrams told The Palm Beach Post on Monday that he encountered the issue this past week as the commission’s representative to the county’s canvassing board, which verifies the election.

Abrams said about 2,000 people had submitted provisional ballots in the presidential race after being told they weren’t properly registered. But probably fewer than half of these were affected by the motor-voter problem, officials said.

That’s because elections staff “literally attaches to each provisional ballot the information on when they became NPA,” Abrams said.

Some people made the switch decades ago and likely forgot, but for many, there was a printout showing that their registration was switched at the Department of Motor Vehicles, Abrams said.

“These are lifelong Democrats or Republicans,” Abrams said. “You can tell they didn’t voluntarily change to NPA after a trip to the DMV.”

The Tax Collector’s Office some four years ago was authorized to process driver license applications. It took over the function altogether when the last local office of the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles closed in June.

Under the “motor voter” law, clerks are required to ask customers if they also would like to apply to vote or to update their address or other information on their voting registration. Those who say yes are directed to complete a computer form.

A slide presentation that is used to train clerks shows the screen in which a person is asked to select his or her party. Abrams said people likely either skipped over that page in their haste or presumed that if no box was checked, their party affiliation would default to what it had been.

But there is no such default in the process. If a voter, even a longtime party member, doesn’t select the party in updating his or her information, the default actually is “no party affiliation.”

The tax collector’s office then sends the information electronically to the Florida Department of Elections, which forwards it to the appropriate county, which switches the voter’s affiliation.

Abrams said he’d like the process changed so that applicants are first asked if they want to change their political party before being shown the screen listing all political parties. If they answer no, then their party would remain the same.

Voters and elections officials couldn’t correct the problem on election day because the deadline to switch parties was Feb. 16, Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said.

The foul-up didn’t come close to affecting the races. Both races were runaways in Florida and in Palm Beach County, where Donald Trump beat his closest challenger, Marco Rubio, by more than 35,000 votes in the Republican primary, and Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders by more than 64,000 in the Democratic race.

But Abrams said the issue is that voters were disenfranchised.

Tax Collector Anne Gannon said she’s asked for a list of all the provisional voters to track down what happened.

“We don’t have any answers at this point,” she said.

The problem did not prevent voters from voting in any of the 20 non-partisan, municipal elections held in Palm Beach County this past Tuesday.

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