More than 60 provisional ballots in Princeton thrown out in November election

Sixty-three provisional ballots from four voting districts in Princeton were not counted for the November general election because proper protocol was not followed by poll workers, officials at the Mercer County Board of Elections confirmed to Planet Princeton today.

The canvas bags poll workers place the provisional ballots in were not properly sealed by poll workers and the ballots therefore could not be counted, officials said.

Joanne Palmucci, chairwoman of the board, will be meeting with Princeton officials and candidates at 5 p.m. tonight in the municipal building at 400 Witherspoon Street to review what happened on election day. Some residents want assurances from officials that the December school bond referendum vote won’t be a repeat of Nov. 6.

“It was human error, and it happens often,” Palmucci said of the unsealed canvas bags. “The law clearly states that if the bags are not sealed properly, they ballots have to be rejected. Unfortunately that is what happened in this case in Princeton. There is nothing more we can do about it now.”

Poll workers transport the bags from the polling places to the municipal clerk’s office.The bags are then transported to the Mercer County Board of Elections by police officers. The bags for four districts were not sealed when inspected by election board workers. “Maybe someone thought they were sealed, but they were not,” Palmucci said, adding that her office consults with representatives from the attorney general’s office on election night and beyond to ensure that the board is following the law.

Workers at the polls are trained thoroughly and their training is mandatory, but sometimes they do not close the bags properly, Palmucci said. Sometimes the bags don’t seal properly. But the workers should then take action immediately when that happen and contact county officials. Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami-Covello said poll workers are supposed to report broken seals to the clerk’s office on election night. New seals can be delivered to the polling locations within about half an hour. 

Many of the provisional ballots were ballots from voters who were on the permanent list to vote by mail. The Mercer County Clerk mailed every voter who cast a ballot by mail in 2016 a notice that they would be on the permanent mail-in ballot list to due to a law change in August of this year. The letter gave them an opportunity to opt out of the vote by mail list by returning a card. More than 2,600 Princeton residents are registered to vote by mail, according to the Mercer County Clerk’s office.

Some mail-in ballots also were not counted on Nov. 6 because the voters put the ballots in the envelope backward, hiding the name and address from the envelope window. If workers can read enough to get a name and address, the ballots are scanned and counted. But workers are not allowed to open the envelope to determine the identity of the voter.

Palmucci said the number of voters who did not follow the directions for mailing back their ballots was much lower than last year. Sollami-Covello said the mail-in ballot envelopes were redesigned this year. Dudley Sipprelle, the chair of the Princeton Republican organization, raised the issue about the envelope problems several times last year, and attended a meeting of the board of elections last winter to voice his concerns.

The process in Princeton on election day Nov. 6 has received bipartisan criticism. Democratic and Republican leaders have said that several districts were poorly staffed with board workers who did not seem to understand fully what to do. The Republicans reached out to the board of elections after the election to ask that an experienced Princeton master board worker with proven on-the-job skills would have helped in avoiding the fiasco in Princeton. The Democrats also contacted the board voicing concerns.

People from both parties in Princeton have reported that some poll workers pressured voters to vote a certain way. The following are other criticisms detailed in an email from the Democratic municipal chair that was distributed to some Princeton Democrats last night and forwarded to Planet Princeton by a Democrat this morning:

Election Day Problems in Princeton – Report from Members of the Princeton Democratic Municipal Committee and Democratic Challengers

District 1 – In District 1, the board workers are pretty good, and the same every year. They do their best to make it easy for people to vote and are quick to offer a provisional if needed.

Minor suggestion: The shield for provisional ballots is not large enough for privacy. It needs to be larger and taller.

District 5 and District 22 – Two issues (see District 22, below). 1) Late arrival of board workers for District 22 2) No replacement for the experienced challenger after she left in the early afternoon (District 5). No delays for District 5—but one very tired board worker.

District 6 – All went well. A few people thought the Suzanne Patterson Center (the old Princeton Borough town hall) was Municipal Bldg., now at 400 Witherspoon St. But that’s it.

District 7 (Ichan Lab, where most of the students vote) – The poll workers in District 7 were wonderful, except for one young man who had an “attitude.” It is a difficult district because there are a lot of students, but he was not helpful or sympathetic. At the beginning of the day, he was asking people for ID and saying he had to call the Board of Elections to make sure they could cast a provisional ballot. He also took the counts from the machines, but did not post them as required. Challengers had to ask him for the numbers. He started to tell people they were in the wrong district when they said they lived in Forbes College because he did not understand that it’s a residence hall at Princeton University and the residents do vote in District 7. He was hostile to voters who asked why they couldn’t vote or had to vote provisionally and to challengers who tried to help.

District 9  (which is in the same location as Districts 11 and 21) – After having expressed my concern about the level of training of our district’s board workers, I asked the county clerk specifically what had been the performance rate of our provisional ballots since they were likely to be very important this year. She could not answer that question.

Districts 9, 11, and 21 had to call an experienced board worker out of retirement just to properly shutdown the machines and retrieve the tapes!

It is more than distressing; it is a travesty that the county calls these folks “trained”! As I said before, we have now as a senior worker, someone who barely understands or speaks English. I’m not sure if she is literate, as she and I reviewed the three-inch binder of board instructions and I had to help her find what she was looking for.

I worked as a challenger all 14 hours this year, with one 40-minute break, out of concern for what I was seeing. I made my concerns known to the county master board worker who spent a few hours, back and forth between our polling place at Community Park School and 400 Witherspoon. She initially admonished me for helping when the board worker asked me how to do this or that or whether a provisional should be filed. However, she hung around for a bit and realized what we were dealing with and on her last trip, personally wished me good luck with what we were faced with—a 17-year old high school board worker from West Windsor on assignment from her AP history class closing the books!!!

I suggest that as challengers, it is never too late for us to be trained in the steps and procedures we are charged with monitoring.

Districts 9, 11, 21 – A lot of voters who entered Community Park School polling place didn’t know what district they live in. The only district map was 8 ½ x 11 inches – too small to be very helpful. It would be great to have at least one poster-sized district map on the wall in every polling place.

Handicapped access at Community Park School was bad. Very difficult for someone in a wheelchair to get over the first big bump up onto the ramp (heading away from the school, toward the Municipal Bldg. parking lot). Plus, it was quite slippery (wood) and after dark it was super-difficult to see. I say an older guy fall flat on that ramp, either from tripping over it in the dark, or from slipping on the wet wood. (I walked an elderly board worker to her car because she was afraid of falling in the dark. She was very unsteady on her feet and said she would not work the polls again. “I am too old for this!” And then she drove off without turning on her headlights. Yikes!)

There were too few board workers. At one point in D-9 at the dinner hour, there was no board worker at the D-9 table. The line grew to about 15 people long and there was literally no board worker at the table for nearly 10 minutes. She had to use the restroom. At the same time, there were three board workers at the D-11 table. The second board worker for D-9 was 17 years old and not particularly well trained. She was smart and conscientious, but not on top of the provisional ballot situation. There were other training-related issues, too, that resulted in the ticket stub count being different from the machine count of voters.  All that said, it was great to see so many people voting! Thanks for listening.

District 10 – D-10 was under-staffed. A board worker was out sick or something. Some D-10 voters complained that exterior and signage at the Methodist Church was terrible and it was difficult to find the voting room. Also, ADA accessibility seemed pretty bad at the church. [Note: there is an elevator, but it is in a back entrance and not clearly marked.]

District 10 at the Methodist Church, Nassau Street, Princeton – We were lucky to have the same board worker we previously had. Usually we have three folks who are all good, but we had one inexperienced woman who was well meaning but did not know how to instruct individuals filling out provisional ballots; the fact that we call them “provisional” ballots posits the idea of insecurity about whether their vote will be counted.

The emphasis on provisional voting appears to be murky for board workers, even the best of them. A few potential voters walked out after having been told that they should vote in their own district that was on the campus, which is more than half a mile away.  I think about two or three people were turned away. The experienced board worker didn’t know the campus so she naturally thought it would not be a long walk.

I think board workers should have to role-play!!!! I would love to participate in this activity. I think that role-playing would truly “teach” the possibilities of what comes up. I wouldn’t mind even leading such an activity if someone is needed (pro bono). Unless board workers are tested through role-playing, the rules are just something that may have been read. I know there is some training but it would be helpful for us to know how training is handled. Perhaps the manual for training is not clear or just too dry and not put together with human factors involved. The board workers’ language is very important. When asked whether her provisional ballot would be counted, out inexperienced  board worker said: “It should be counted, not it WILL be counted.”

District 11 – It is extremely troublesome that the pouches for several districts were not secured. There were many provisional ballots from District 11 this year, and I am sure the same was true in other districts because of the change in the vote-by-mail law. The Board of Elections has not properly trained the board workers, and for close local elections (as was true of the Board of Ed election) the loss of those votes may have been outcome-determinative.

Also, District 11, which is now much denser because of Avalon Bay, was understaffed. The district needs at least three workers sitting at the tables to check people in, three more to handle the voting machines at peak times, and at least one to two for the machines at off-peak times.

District 12 – Is there some way to put pressure on the county clerk to prevent the poll workers who did not seal the provisional ballots correctly from serving again? Could that be the case county-wide? As I mentioned, after the training I received as a challenger, I did have more information that the poll worker.

District 13 – No problems to report from District 13.

District 14 – I worked as a challenger in D 14. The workers reassured everyone voting a provisional ballot that their votes would be turned in & counted.

District 16 – 1. Provisional ballots, as I’m sure everyone knows, were way up. District 16 had about a dozen (usually one or two at most), while District 15 had about 18 by 6 PM. I know there were other districts with way more. Personally, I had no problem with the roll out of the VBM ballots, but there needed to be a more widespread campaign to inform the casual voter about the consequences of not sending them back on time.  2. We had at least two people who were incorrectly sent to our district to vote (sorry, I don’t know where they came from but in both cases they should have been sent to the church at the corner of Vandeventer and Nassau). Either the board workers have to be better informed or the challengers need to double-check the information being given out. I know that can be a little touchy, but people get very annoyed (especially in the rain) and lose the inclination to vote.

District 18 – Two workers have been poll workers for District 18 in the several years that I have been on the municipal committee. They have consistently demonstrated poor work habits and have frequently made loud, objectionable comments, which I’m sure that many others, in addition to the challengers, find disconcerting.

To the list of comments noted below by another challenger, I would add the one poll worker’s frequent comments about pro-choice officeholders being “baby-killers.” He made that comment on November 6 while sitting at his table in reference to Senator Menendez; I have heard him say the same thing about other politicians on other election days.

In addition to offensive and/or inappropriate remarks, the two frequently ignore their duties, talking with each other rather than serving the voters. They frequently keep people waiting, going on long breaks and ignoring the people in front of them.

Also, there was a discrepancy in the counts of voters in District 18: there was an under-count (300 people listed as having voted, but only 298 accounted for in the tallies). Evidently two District 18 voters had voted in District 13 by mistake, an error that should have been caught by the poll workers.

I just wanted to share some ongoing concerns with you about the county workers in District 18. Julie had some concerns, too. I spent a lot of time keeping them on task , reminding them that there were people in line (while they were chatting or eating), and telling them to stop talking about election-related topics. If those two could be split up, they may work more appropriately.

Sample comments from one poll worker while voters were in the room:
“Whenever I see the words 500 million dollars on the ballot, I automatically vote no.”
“Eve Niedergang isn’t volunteering here today because she has more important work to do for her election.”
“We should be able to get rid of all of our congressmen every 2 years.”
“The mayor of Plainsboro has been there for 20 years unopposed.”
And talking about his views about school board candidates who were on the ballot.

District 21  – I’m in District 21. When I voted around 4 p.m., there were 12 provisional ballots that had been cast in District 21. If people think that their vote might not be counted, it discourages voting.

I didn’t see any problems at the polls. Our workers for District 21 are great, and a pleasure to work with. Thanks!

District 22 and District 5, Municipal Building, 400 Witherspoon St. – So, what happened in District 22, as you know, is that a group of voters was there shortly before 6 a.m. but there were no county election workers. A young man who works for the Nassau Inn showed up a little before 6:30 a.m., but he seemed to have had no training to speak of.

Fortunately, with help from District 5 folks (especially one challenger), some sort of supervisor came, and got things up and running. A young woman who was there at the last election showed up a bit later and she knew what she was doing.

However, the cycle of disorganization continued. The supervisor returned with a third worker who by then wasn’t needed, and so they left. Later, an elderly woman from Princeton who also was there at the last general election, showed up. It’s my impression she has done this for many years, and she is perfectly nice, but I think she is past the point of being able to do the job. She is extremely slow, her hands are a bit palsied and I think she may also have an uncorrected hearing deficit.

Subsequently, the young woman board worker left (she said it was due to a family medical issue), leaving the elderly woman and the young man. Fortunately, he was very sharp and over the course of the day became increasingly confident and efficient. This, however, resulted in the elderly woman sitting back and doing nothing at times, until a backup would develop and he would prod her to help.

The other problem was lack of someone to direct people into the District 22 booths at the end of the day. (The experienced challenger was doing this earlier; I returned at 6 but I don’t know how long the situation had existed at that point.)

The young man who was running the District 5 booths took this on and was largely successful because volume had slowed, but I observed two occasions when he got confused and let District 5 voters go into District 22 booths. Fortunately I noticed both times and was able to stop them from voting in the wrong district, but of course I wasn’t there all day and we did not have a challenger there from 2-4 p.m.