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Poll worker error disenfranchises 14 Lake Worth voters

It wasn’t Jeanne Matullo’s fault her vote didn’t count.

When she went to vote on Aug. 26, a poll worker scanned her driver license but couldn’t confirm she was at the right polling place. Instead, Matullo filled out a provisional ballot — the first time she ever did in her 30-odd years as a voter, she said.

But because a poll worker filled out the provisional ballot paperwork incorrectly, Matullo’s vote got rejected.

She wasn’t alone. Fourteen Lake Worth voters lost their chance to weigh in on the narrowly defeated city bond referendum Aug. 26 because poll workers didn’t fill in a line on a form properly, a Palm Beach Post review of the city’s 30 provisional ballots shows.

In all 14 cases, the voter filled in the line properly, identifying their party affiliation, and met all other criteria for voting.

But the poll worker, required to verify that the voter was handed the proper provisional ballot, either left the line blank or wrote PROV for provisional on the line marked “ballot style,” meaning whether it’s a ballot for a Democrat, Republican or no party affiliation.

In Lake Worth, where the rejected ballots were concentrated in two precincts, one poll worker will be asked not to return for the November elections, Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said. Her office trains poll workers.

In the county at the center of the 2000 presidential election meltdown, politicians insisted for years that every properly cast vote must count. But Florida law sometimes makes that ideal impossible when it comes to provisional ballots, Bucher said.

More than 200 voters cast provisional ballots countywide during the Aug. 26 primary. Many were needed because of a computer glitch in a new procedure for checking in voters. The provisional ballot allows voters to cast a ballot if something is questionable about their voting status at the polling place to be checked later by election officials.

Once filled out, a provisional ballot is placed in an unmarked envelope, called the secrecy envelope. The secrecy envelope goes inside an outer envelope that contains information filled out by the voter and the poll worker.

Later, election workers check to see if the information is right, filling out another form on the outer envelope. The canvassing board, made up of Bucher and two judges, reviews the information on the outer envelope to decide if the ballot should count.

If it counts, they separate the secrecy envelope from the marked outer envelope to be opened later to assure that the person’s vote remains anonymous. If it doesn’t count, they don’t open the secrecy envelope.

But if the poll worker didn’t say which kind of ballot they handed the voter, the canvassing board cannot know if an appropriate ballot was issued. If they opened the secrecy envelope to check, they would violate the law guaranteeing every voter a secret ballot, Bucher said.

“The only way to determine whether the ballot voted was indeed the proper ballot … notwithstanding the fact that the problem may have been caused by the poll worker, would have been to open the ballot envelope and look at the ballot,” the supervisor’s attorney, Ken Spillias, wrote in a letter to Lake Worth officials.

However, by refusing to find a way to count the ballot, the supervisor’s office violated a different state law, one guaranteeing that “a provisional ballot shall be counted unless the canvassing board determines by a preponderance of the evidence that the person was not entitled to vote,” Lake Worth officials say.

“I think they should bend over backwards to make sure every vote counts,” City Manager Mike Bornstein said.

The 14 votes would not have changed the results of the Lake Worth bond referendum, which failed by 25 votes out of 3,115 cast.

Patrick Flood III, a voter in Lake Worth for 40 years, found the ordeal frustrating. First, the county’s new Ipad mini couldn’t read his driver license. Then, he was told he could cast a provisional ballot but not that he could return to vote later, as eight voters who cast provisional ballots ultimately did that day in Lake Worth.

“That ticks me off that, in a country like this, someone who has voted all their life can get their vote thrown out like that,” Flood said.

While Flood identified himself as an independent voter, the voter registration rolls list him as a Democrat. “That’s the first I’ve heard about that,” Flood said.

By writing “Independent” on his provisional ballot envelope, he invalidated his vote, Bucher said, since he should have been given a Democratic-styled ballot. The Post did not count his ballot among the 14 rejected because of poll worker error.

Bucher said the canvassing board threw out another ballot for the same reason. Edward Matias described himself as a Democrat and the poll worker recorded Democrat correctly. But Bucher said her records indicate he’s registered as a Republican, thus invalidating his provisional ballot. A June state voter registration database, however, listed Matias as a Democrat. He could not be reached for comment.

Of the 14 rejected ballots, 13 were cast by Democrats, none by Republicans. Six were cast at Precinct 7162, the Oasis Health and Rehabilitation Center in south Lake Worth. Five were from Precinct 3064, the First Congregational Church in north Lake Worth. The remaining three came from separate precincts.

Bucher said her office always has refused to count mistaken provisional ballots, even if the error is made by poll workers, who are trained by the supervisor’s office. It’s a problem more likely to occur in a primary, she said.

“These are standards I inherited because it’s in the law,” she said.

If voters want the problem fixed, they should take it up with the Legislature, she said.

In his letter, Spillias spelled out the dilemma posed by the conflicting laws.

“While this may be an unsatisfactory outcome to the voter … it is a conundrum created by the legislative enactments that govern the actions of the canvassing board itself and all who participate in the electoral process, not by a nefarious effort on the part of the canvassing board to disenfranchise voters,” Spillias wrote.

A Florida Division of Elections spokeswoman could not respond Friday to questions about the county’s interpretation of state law. No opinions on the division’s Web site address the issue.

Ion Sancho, longtime elections chief in Leon County, conceded that state laws do not favor voters.

“Our laws are not rational because Florida supervisors can’t rewrite our election code without getting into the partisan hassles that accompany that,” Sancho said. “We really have a situation where we need to modernize our laws but unfortunately in the Florida political environment, that’s an impossibility.”

Bucher, stinging from criticism from Lake Worth officials at a special city commission meeting Sept. 5, praised her employees. In his letter, Spillias wrote: “I can say with confidence that the office is conducting elections better than it has ever done. While perfection has not been achieved … imperfections have been reduced tremendously.”

To avoid being forced to cast a provisional ballot in November, Bucher urged voters to bring their driver license or any one of eight other acceptable photo ID cards. She said the opening day glitch with the voter check-in Ipad minis is no longer an issue.

While voters casting provisional ballots are supposed to get paperwork describing their right to prove within 48 hours that they were entitled to vote, Matullo said she got nothing. Almost two weeks after the election, she didn’t know until told by a Post reporter that her vote had not counted.

“I was at a meeting with (U.S. Rep.) Lois Frankel where she said, ‘We have to get single women out to vote,’” Matullo said. “But now I know it didn’t count. That’s sad.”

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