RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
With lots of new voters turning out for this year's presidential primaries, election officials are also seeing a lot of problems. Some people go to the wrong polling sites, others are on the registration list, still others don't have the proper ID. The fallback for these voters is something called a provisional ballot - where you vote and that vote is checked out later.
Yet, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, those votes don't always count.
PAM FESSLER: Here are just a few of the thousands of calls made so far this year to 866-MY-VOTE-1, a national voter hotline.
Unidentified Woman #1 (Caller, 866-MY-VOTE-1): I've been voting at the same precinct for six years now, and all of the sudden my name and my mother's name wasn't in the voting book.
Unidentified Man (Caller, 866-MY-VOTE-1): I am a registered Democrat. I was told that I did not have an affiliation. I had to fill out a provisional form.
Unidentified Woman #2 (Caller, 866-MY-VOTE-1): They could not find me in the system. The manager came over and gave me some polling place in another area that I had never heard of before.
FESSLER: Those calls were from Ohio and Maryland, but Cecilia Martinez, executive director of The Reform Institute, a hotline co-sponsor, says the questions are nationwide. Most callers want to know where they're supposed to go vote, but there are other concerns.
Ms. CECILIA MARTINEZ (Executive Director, The Reform Institute): Oftentimes what happens is when a voter goes to the polls, and they have registered, but they for whatever reason are not listed on the registration rolls, they are supposed to be voting provisional. That's sort of the back-up plan.
FESSLER: A back-up plan required by federal law after the chaos of the 2000 elections. The idea is that if voters run into trouble at the polling place, they can cast a provisional ballot that will be counted later if the problem is resolved. But the rules are confusing and vague. And provisional ballots that count in one state, might not count in another. Linda Weedon is deputy elections director for Maricopa County, Arizona. She says the county accepted fewer than half the unprecedented 52,000 provisional ballots cast in the state's February 5th primary.
Ms. LINDA WEEDON (Executive Elections Director, Maricopa County, Arizona): It's closed, so if you're not registered in the political party, you can't participate. We had a lot of what we call independents or registered as other than that went to the polls to vote and ended up doing a provisional ballot.
FESSLER: A similar thing occurred in New Mexico's Democratic caucus where fewer than half the 17,000 provisional ballots cast were considered valid. And it's a concern in Pennsylvania, which holds its primary next week and where there's been a flood of new registrations, more than 217,000 since January. State Representative Babette Josephs, who chairs the committee that oversees elections, is worried that a lot of first-time voters will forget that they have to show I.D.
Ms. BABETTE JOSEPH (Pennsylvania State Representative, Chair of Election Committee): And I fear that for some of those who have no time to go back home and get ID, that there may not be enough provisional ballots for them to vote, which is a procedure we allow here in this state.
FESSLER: Local officials say they are trying to prepare for a heavy turnout. One advantage for Pennsylvania voters is that their provisional ballots count if cast anywhere in the correct county. A lot of states require provisional votes to be cast in the right precinct, a problem if the voter doesn't know where that is. Ned Foley, a professor at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University sees other difficulties. He says provisional voters have to be registered for their votes to count.
Professor NED FOLEY (Professor of Law at Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University): But that is usually all the state law says, and it turns out that that question is much trickier in practice. Sometimes registration forms get lost in transit from the Motor Vehicle Bureau to the election officials. Is that voter registered or not registered?
FESSLER: Indeed, he notes the question was decisive in a contested 2004 Washington gubernatorial race after it was discovered that registration data wasn't recorded for several hundred provisional voters.
Prof. FOLEY: It was determined under state law that they were indeed to be deemed a registered voter and that ended up being that the other candidate was declared the winner.
FESSLER: He says it's conceivable provisional ballots will be crucial this year as well if the presidential race is tight, all the more reason he says for states to clarify the rules.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.