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Unintended (or Unanticipated?) Consequences: Pew Examines Roots of Long Lines in Galveston

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[Image courtesy of b5z]

A few weeks ago, I used a Pew Election Data Disptach to invoke Anna Karenina as a metaphor for the myriad ways jurisdictions can become "unhappy" via long lines.

Pew's latest Dispatch about long lines in Galveston, TX is yet another example of that phenomenon but also a reminder that sometimes the problem isn't unanticipated (i.e., what isn't supposed to happen) but rather a natural consequence of election law and procedure - i.e., what is supposed to happen. Pew explains:

The county was using vote centers for the first time during a presidential election, which allows voters to cast their ballot at any polling location. Of the 45 centers in the county, 38 reportedly did not open on time, leading to waits of one to 4.5 hours for some voters and prompting a judge to extend voting by almost two hours.

What happened?

State law requires a zero-out report on Election Day--printing out all races on every voting machine to ensure no votes have been recorded before polls open. The challenge with doing this in a vote center county is that each voting system has every possible ballot programmed into it--and they all must be printed out. In some cases the machines ran out of paper and then had to be restocked. County election officials said this took much longer than they expected.

Whether or not the election office anticipated this issue - and if it did, how well it conveyed those concerns during the discussion about switching to vote centers - it ended up being a big problem for the County and its voters on Election Day.

Worse, those delays at the beginning of the day led to more problems at the end:

The 382 ballots cast during the court-mandated extended voting period were required by law to be cast as provisional ballots. Overall, more than 1,900 provisional ballots were cast in the county, although in one more hiccup, election officials still could not agree on the final count of provisional ballots three days after the election. Eventually all provisional ballots were accounted for.

The first consequence - provisional ballots when polling hours are extended - is a requirement of federal law pursuant to the Help America Vote Act; it was included as a means to segregate (and if necessary, exclude) provisional ballots cast during extended hours if the court order extending voting is later declared invalid.

The second consequence - missing provisional ballots - isn't a direct result of the law but is certainly related to the first. As Pew notes, because of the wrinkle presented by the late opening, there was a brief period of confusion after Election Day about how many provisional ballots were cast. While it was ultimately resolved, the confusion confirms how disruptive even minor deviations from standard practice can be.

My takeaway from all of this is that even as election officials prepare for things they can't anticipate, they also need to focus on the things they can like the interaction of laws and technology in the polling place - whether or not those have changed. Failure to do so can result not just in headaches on Election Day but afterwards as court-ordered provisional ballots complicate the count.

In other words, not every unintended consequence is unanticipated.

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