JEFFERSON CITY — Hundreds of properly registered Missouri voters had their ballots rejected in the November 2008 election. That was only half as bad as the last general election.
Half as bad, however, does not equal good in the eyes of voters' rights advocates.
At issue is a system set up to accommodate people whose voting eligibility cannot be verified by poll workers.
Instead of turning away such people, poll workers can give them provisional ballots, which are sealed in envelopes and counted only if the voters' eligibility later is verified.
The provisional ballot was one of several reforms instituted after troubles in the 2000 election. The number of Missourians casting provisional ballots has steadily declined from 2004 to 2008 — a good sign to election officials, who say that means more voters are casting regular, automatically counted ballots.
Casting a provisional ballot never has been a sure bet for Missourians. To be counted, it must be cast at the proper polling precinct.
In the 2006 election, 53 percent of those who cast provisional ballots ultimately ended up having their votes counted — either because their provisional ballots were accepted or they later cast regular ballots after their eligibility was confirmed.
This past November, fewer than 27 percent of people who cast provisional ballots had their votes counted. Of the provisional ballots rejected, 85 percent were turned down because the voter was not eligible in that jurisdiction.
There are several possibilities for that. The person may never have actually registered to vote. More likely, the person may have moved from one county to another and not updated his or her voter registration.
Cole County Clerk Marvin Register, who counted just 9 of the 108 provisional ballots that were cast, said a majority of the rejected ballots were from Lincoln University students who had filled out registration cards in Jefferson City but listed their hometown addresses.
"They cast the provisional ballots because they thought they were registered here," Register said. "When we checked it we found, yeah, they were registered voters — just not here in Cole County" — so their provisional ballots could not count.
Another reason why some provisional voters may have been declared ineligible is because their voter registrations were turned in after the Oct. 8 deadline to qualify for the Nov. 4 election.
"We had a lot of special interest groups taking registrations, and we didn't apparently receive all of those," said Cathy Fry, an election assistant in St. Charles County, where just 33 of the 356 people who cast provisional ballots ultimately had their votes counted.
Problems with voter registration drives are one matter. But some voter advocates are more concerned about the properly registered voters who nonetheless did not have their provisional ballots counted.
In the November election, 430 provisional ballots were rejected because the voter — though eligible — cast the provisional ballot at the wrong polling place.
Although that's down from 783 wrong-place rejections in the 2006 election, that's of little consolation to Denise Lieberman, the senior Missouri attorney for the Advancement Project, which monitored St. Louis and Kansas City polling places and fielded voters' concerns over a statewide hot line.
What riles Lieberman is that state law requires poll workers to direct registered voters to the correct polling place. And yet the Advancement Project documented numerous instances in which poll workers failed to do so and instead simply gave voters provisional ballots — essentially ensuring their votes would not be counted.
A few examples: Voters at the Langston and New City schools in St. Louis and at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Kansas City were told by poll workers that their names were not on the list for those sites and were given provisional ballots without being directed to the proper polling places, the Advancement Project said in a post-election report to Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.
Lieberman attributes those rejected ballots to "poll worker error."
The same could be said for the 244 people whose provisional ballots were rejected because the envelope did not contain complete or correct information.
By law, two election judges are required to sign those envelopes. In some cases, only one poll worker did so — invalidating the person's vote, Lieberman said. In other cases, poll workers should have acted more like gracious teachers and sent the voters back to fill in more information before putting their official signatures on incomplete envelopes, Lieberman said.
Carnahan spokeswoman Laura Egerdal said the state tried to ensure poll workers were educated about provisional ballot laws. The office made $2 million in grants available for efforts related to poll workers. It also distributed tip cards that instructed poll workers to call their local election headquarters when a voter's name wasn't on their precinct books, and then to direct that voter to the right polling place.
"Elections in this state, when you get to where the rubber meets the road, are run by about 25,000 people who have varying levels of experience and varying levels of training based on what each local election authority does," Egerdal said.
In such circumstances, some registered voters end up with their votes not counting.