A state Supreme Court ruling released April 18 will change the way Mobile County, as well as the rest of the state, handles out-of-precinct voters in elections from now on.
The court overturned a ruling made in the Montgomery County Circuit Court in 2012 that sided with then Secretary of State Beth Chapman and the Mobile County Board of Registrars in regards to how the issue of voters casting ballots in incorrect precincts was to be handled. Mobile County Probate Court Judge Don Davis filed suit claiming voters who were still on the rolls in the wrong precinct and showed up there to vote should be sent to their proper precinct to file an update and vote a provisional ballot.
Davis had complained that memos sent out by Chapman and the Board of Registrars prior to the primaries in 2012 ignored state law and allowed voters to cast ballots in the wrong precincts as long as their names appeared on the rolls. Davis argued that allowing voters to cast ballots in precincts where they no longer legally live could have the effect of changing the outcomes of close elections.
However, the Montgomery County Circuit Court ruled in Chapman’s favor, saying her orders to boards of registrars across the state to follow the 1994 “fail-safe” voting act and allow voters to cast regular ballots in precincts where they no longer lived but were still on the rolls. But last week’s Supreme Court ruling reverses that, meaning all of the state’s counties are going to have to prepare for changes in upcoming elections.
The Supreme Court found that federal voting rights acts and state law were not in conflict with one another, meaning the state law prohibiting voters from casting ballots outside of their legal precinct was still in effect.
“During the primary election, the Board (of Registrars) members implemented the instructions in the email, counseling poll workers who sought instruction concerning how to process voters who had moved to a location in the county that was serviced by a different polling place but who had failed to update their registration to allow those voters to cast regular ballots at their former polling place,” the court wrote. “In contrast, the Mobile Probate Court counseled poll workers who sought instruction concerning how to process such voters to direct the voters to cast provisional ballots at the polling places designated for their current residences. Judge Davis alleged that approximately 20,000 active registered voters in the County had mailing addresses that differed from the addresses reflected in the Board of Registrars’ voter list. As a result of the conflicting instructions provided to poll workers, an unprecedented number of provisional ballots were cast in the primary election.”
Issues about the accuracy of Mobile County voter rolls came to light during primary voting in 2012. In an effort to save money, Davis’ office put out a request for proposal (RFP) to have an independent business print voter registration cards for the primary. The low bidder turned out to be the Press-Register newspaper, so they were awarded the work. Part of the bid was mailing out the cards, Davis said. The county’s board of registrars provided the Press-Register with the list of names and addresses on the official rolls.
However, instead of using the address list provided by the county, the Press-Register used the official Postal Service records and the end result was 20,000 voter cards — which are legal for use as voter identification — going to addresses other than where the voters are registered.
Davis’ office said this created a situation in which those voters could have shown back up in an incorrect precinct and voted improperly. Of the 20,000, 4,000 were found to have moved out of Mobile County, but 16,000 people were at addresses inside the county that were not the ones on the official roll, meaning they may well have voted at the wrong precinct.
Mark Erwin, Davis’ chief of staff, said the Supreme Court ruling last week clarifies what should happen now when voting inspectors become aware that someone has shown up in the wrong precinct.
“The inspector needs to instruct the voter to go to the precinct where they live. Then that person can fill out an update and vote a provisional ballot that will count,” he said.
He went on to say, “I think they want us to err on the side of making it difficult to vote in the wrong place.”
Erwin explained that numerous problems arise from allowing voters to cast ballots in the wrong precinct. The most obvious is how it could affect a close race. Another is that it might even allow someone to cast two votes in a particular election, even though doing so is illegal. In theory someone could cast a regular ballot in the wrong precinct then go to their proper precinct and file a provisional ballot. If that original ballot was not caught, both votes would count.
Shirley Short, a member of the Mobile County Board of Registrars, says they are not certain what the ruling means at this time.
“Now that the law has been clarified, we will abide by it,” she said. “When it comes down from the Secretary of State how this will affect us, we will know.”
Erwin said his guess is it will lead to increased calls from voting inspectors dealing with people trying to vote in the wrong precinct. He added that the ruling should also let the voter have confidence that going to the correct precinct and filing a provisional ballot will mean their vote counts.
With elections coming up this summer, Erwin said the easiest way for voters to avoid any issues is to contact the Board of Registrars and update their information if they’ve moved.
“There’s plenty of time before June,” he said.