WASHINGTON - New voting laws in key states could force many more
voters to cast provisional ballots this election, delaying results
in close races for days while election officials scrutinize ballots
and campaigns wage legal battles over which ones should get counted.
New laws in competitive states such as Virginia, Florida,
Pennsylvania and Wisconsin could leave the outcome of the
presidential election in doubt - if the vote is close - while new
laws in Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee could
delay results in state or local elections.
Some new laws requiring voters to show identification at the
polls are still being challenged in court, adding to the uncertainty
as the Nov. 6 election nears.
"It's a possibility of a complete meltdown for the election,"
said Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of
Voters cast provisional ballots for a variety of reasons: They
don't bring proper ID to the polls; they fail to update their voter
registration after moving; they try to vote at the wrong precinct;
or their right to vote is challenged by someone.
These voters may have their votes counted, but only if election
officials can verify that they were eligible to vote, a process that
can take days or weeks. Adding to the potential for chaos: Many
states won't even know how many provisional ballots have been cast
until sometime after Election Day.
Voters cast nearly 2.1 million provisional ballots in the 2008
presidential election. About 69 percent were eventually counted,
according to election results compiled by The Associated Press.
Provisional ballots don't get much attention if an election is a
landslide. But what if the vote is close, as the polls suggest in
the race between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney?
Most of today's voting nightmares go back to Florida in 2000,
when the results of balloting and thus the winner of the
presidential contest were not known for weeks after Election Day.
Questions about recount irregularities and the validity of ballots
with hanging chads - paper fragments still attached to punch-card
ballots - preceded the eventual declaration that George W. Bush had
won the state by 537 votes and was the next president.
"In a close election, all eyes are going to be on those
provisional ballots, and those same canvassing boards that were
looking at pregnant chads and hanging chads back in 2000," Smith
said. "It's a potential mess."
The federal election law passed in response to the 2000
presidential election gives voters the option to cast a provisional
ballot, if poll workers deny them a regular one. Voter ID laws could
slow the count even more.
In Virginia and Wisconsin, voters who don't bring an ID to the
polls can still have their votes counted if they produce an ID by
the Friday following Election Day. …