Will computer programs dissuade absentee voters if names don’t match exactly?

  • By Barbara S. Miller
    Staff writer
September 8, 2012
The Pennsylvania Department of State sent two sets of posters to county election departments. The list of acceptable IDs on one version is incomplete, Washington County Elections Director Larry Spahr pointed out. - Barbara S. Miller / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Carole Zentek of Monongahela was named Rosella at birth for her two grandmothers, Rose and Ella. “Rosella,” however, is a name she used only when a student at Catholic school. The rest of the time, everyone knows her as Carole, and “R. Carole” is the name she used when she registered to vote in 1961.

But because her driver’s license and name on her Social Security card – Rosella Carole – don’t match the name on her voter’s registration card, she could find that her absentee ballot won’t be counted Nov. 6 unless she submits a photocopy of a valid photo ID to the Washington County elections office.

The Pennsylvania Department of State has said voters’ registrations only have to “substantially match” the name on a driver’s license when someone appears to vote in person on Election Day, under the state’s new Voter ID Law.

But it seems that computer databases don’t exercise discretion when processing absentee ballot requests.

The Washington County Elections Office discovered this when attempting to process Carole Zentek’s absentee ballot application last week, and the same question of validity arose for other prospective absentee voters, too, who are required to submit a Pennsylvania driver’s license number or the last four digits on a Social Security card to verify their identities.

When it does not find an exact match of a voter’s name among driver’s licenses and Social Security databases, the SURE system initiates a letter to the absentee voter telling him or her that he or she will be able to cast a provisional ballot that will be counted only if the voter provides an acceptable form of voter identification to the county elections office. Because of this provisional status, the county elections office will be sending a second warning when it mails the absentee ballot.

Since many absentee ballots are requested by those with health problems that make it hard for them to leave their homes, as well as college student and business travelers, getting the information to the elections office may prove difficult.

“Common sense would tell you,” said Zentek, 72, of the apparent perfection the databases are requiring in a phone interview on Friday. “With the same address and the same birthdate, how could it be anybody else? They really should tell people about this. They’re going to lose a lot of voters. I tell people about it and they say, ‘I just won’t vote.’”

In Zentek’s case, the SURE system wouldn’t validate her absentee ballot application.

“What it means in layperson’s terms is it’s all screwed up,” said Washington County Elections Director Larry Spahr.

Ron Ruman, spokesman for the Department of State in Harrisburg, said the SURE system has a manual override that Washington County can use if the system has a Robert Smith, for example, but not a Bob Smith, with the same address and birthdate.

Ruman also encouraged the county to call absentee voters whose names don’t match, which Washington County did.

But even after speaking with Zentek on the phone, an elections office worker cannot unilaterally change her name to Rosella in the system, because only a voter can initiate a change like that and she would have to also submit the required signature.

Ruman, after listening to the circumstances surrounding Zentek’s absentee ballot application, said, “We wouldn’t foresee that in anywhere near 5,600 cases,” the number of absentee ballots cast in Washington County in the last presidential contest.

Zentek will receive a default letter generated by the SURE system telling her that her voter registration name didn’t match the Department of Motor Vehicles database.

The Washington County elections office will also be notifying Zentek and other voters in a similar situation of the mismatch, telling them they must bring in valid ID, mail it, fax it or email a scanned copy.

Spahr alerted the state by email Thursday, and a representative of the Department of State phoned the Washington County elections office Friday.

“They have to look at the logic of the software,” Spahr said. “The state’s own software violates the statute. There’s nothing to partially include. It’s total inclusion or partial exclusion.”

Ruman said he hasn’t heard of similar complaints from other counties.

Absentee ballot applications ask for a Pennsylvania driver’s license number and the last four digits of the Social Security number. Matching of these numbers doesn’t automatically override a variation in the name, Spahr said.

Of Washington County’s approximately 5,600 absentee ballots cast in the presidential election of 2008 were a fraction of the 98,471 total votes. Republican Sen. John McCain won the contest in the county over Democratic Sen. Barack Obama in the county by 4,630 votes.

Whether absentee ballots are considered provisional because they have an identification deficiency could become a factor in a close race.

Spahr noted that the Washington County district attorney’s race last November was decided by about 100 votes in favor of Republican Eugene Vittone over Democrat David DiCarlo.

Zentek, who drives but said health problems make it difficult for her to get around after she exits her car, didn’t seem prepared to jump through too many hoops to cast a vote.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t want to vote. I don’t like either one of them,” she said of the major-party presidential candidates.



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