A member of the Republican State Executive Committee says he was forced to cast a provisional ballot in last week’s runoff election after the Mobile County Board of Registrars erroneously marked him as having voted in the Democratic primary on June 5.
“When I showed them my ID, [a poll worker] said: ‘You can’t vote. You’re are down here as voting in the Democratic primary.’ I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me,’” Austin L. Rainwaters told Lagniappe. “Most folks in the room started laughing because they knew better than that.”
Rainwaters also knew there had to have been some mistake. Not only was his name on the June 5 Republican primary ballot, but he and pretty much all of his family are longtime GOP supporters. Including his campaign for a seat on the state committee, Rainwaters has run as a Republican in four local elections since 1994.
Yet, there on the books last Tuesday — plain as day — Rainwaters and several of his family members were coded as having voted in the Democratic primary. They aren’t the only ones, either. Probate Judge Don Davis told Lagniappe election officials received reports of the same problem at “multiple precincts” throughout Mobile County.
“It wasn’t every poll, but there were a number that reported citizens making those same kinds of comments,” Davis said. “The difficulty is, we have a lot of humans involved in this process. We do our best to train our poll workers as to what their duties and responsibilities are, but whenever humans are involved, mistakes can occur.”
This particular mistake can have much more of an impact now that Alabama has banned crossover voting, which is when someone votes in one party’s primary election but then votes in the opposite party runoff election.
According to Davis, the records of which party primary a voter cast a ballot in begins with the poll, when they inform workers which ballot they would like to receive during the primary. On election day, poll workers circle either “D” (Democrat) or “R” (Republican) by each voter’s name that corresponds to the ballot they chose.
Those voting rolls then go to the Mobile County Board of Registrars, which scans a barcode by each voter’s name to determine who actually cast a ballot in the most recent election and who the county’s active voters are. However, the party preference of each voter has to be input manually in the system, and that’s where Davis and Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill believe things went wrong ahead of last Tuesday’s runoff.
“They actually have to type in DEM or REP to code that voter based on that information. Apparently, they got started doing it wrong and did it wrong several times,” Davis said.
According to the Secretary of State’s office, Mobile and Montgomery counties were the only two that reported these types of problems. In fact, Montgomery County had its own notable mix-up when State Rep. John Knight (D-Montgomery) was told he couldn’t vote in the Democratic runoff even though he was on the ballot.
While Knight’s story was picked up by local media, Merrill said there were only 22 reports of those types of problems in all of Montgomery County. He added that, like Montgomery, any mistakes in Mobile County’s elections process most likely originated with work performed by the local board of registrars.
“It’s been our observation that when errors like this occur, the reason they occur in almost every instance has to do with the lack of attention given by the individuals responsible for inputting the information,” Merrill said. “In this instance it is the Mobile County Board of Registrars.”
Lagniappe was able to confirm that, at least in Rainwaters’ case, the party affiliation on the books provided to the board of registrars from poll workers in June did not match what was on the updated rolls the board sent back for the July 17 primary runoff. Multiple voters clearly marked as Republicans were coded as Democrats.
In Mobile County, poll workers are trained to inform voters if records indicate they voted in the opposite party’s primary, but to allow them to vote a provisional ballot if they insist. Rainwaters said that happened to multiple people at his precinct alone, including his brother, wife, son, daughter in-law and two children. They all had to vote provisional ballots because the records indicated they voted in the Democratic primary last month.
“I think there was something like 15 provisional ballots cast, and my family was about half of them,” he said. “I still feel a bit uneasy about it because I don’t know why they’d make the mistake to start with, and it’s very relevant because that could make or break an election like the one for [Alabama House District 102].”
That race was separated by just 25 votes before provisional ballots were counted and certified on July 24. So far, the board of registrars has declined to discuss what, if anything, went wrong on their end, even though Davis and Merrill have put the blame squarely at registrars’ feet.
Currently, Virginia Delchamps, Pat Tyrrell and Shirley Short make up the Mobile County Board of Registrars, but none has responded to emails about this topic. One member, who did not identify herself, told Lagniappe over the phone “that is marked at the polls.”
“We take the information sent to us from the polls, and that’s how we know whether or not they have voted Republican or Democrat,” the woman said.
While it seems the board was shifting blame to the poll workers, Davis’ Chief of Staff Mark Erwin said the board requested a copy of the paper records from the June 5 primary the day after the runoff in order to go back and verify which primary voters participated in — giving the indication the mistake was made on their end.
Reviewing the party affiliation information from last month’s election likely helped determine whether some provisional ballots were counted or not — a task that is also handled by board of registrars.