WASHINGTON: New voting laws in key states could force a lot 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 like 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 Florida.
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. Pennsylvania’s law gives voters six days to produce an ID. The Wisconsin and Pennsylvania laws are being challenged in court.
In Ohio, which has competitive races for both president and the Senate, provisional voters have up to 10 days following the election to bring an ID to the county board of elections.