TALLAHASSEE — After Florida's 2000 election debacle, Congress thought it had found a way to avoid turning away voters whose qualifications were in question: allow them to cast a provisional ballot.
But a record voter turnout this year, plus a new voter verification law, could lead to the casting of thousands of provisional ballots Tuesday.
In any close races, that could delay election results for several days as county officials try to figure out which provisional ballots are valid and which ones aren't.
That prospect is prompting a rare revolt among nearly half of Florida's election supervisors, who worry provisional ballots will overwhelm them. Against the wishes of Florida's top election official, some county officials say they have the power to decide when some voters should receive a regular ballot versus a provisional one.
"We're trying to avoid all provisional ballots, at all costs," Volusia County Supervisor Ann McFall said. "It's a lot of extra work."
Even before they had to deal with the new "no match, no vote" verification law — which could result in 12,000 more voters casting provisional ballots Tuesday — supervisors had a hard time with provisional ballots.
During the August presidential primary, about 180 voters in Pasco County cast provisional ballots. Most were counted, said Tami Bentley, senior deputy elections supervisor. But "we struggled to get through them" in the two-day period allowed by state law, she said.
With turnout projected to top the 1992 record of 83 percent statewide, "we're scared to death" there will be more than 180 provisional ballots for Pasco next week, Bentley said. But she promised, "We'll get through it. We always do."
The fear of getting buried by an avalanche of provisional ballots has led to the biggest conflict of this election season between county elections officials and Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning.
The two sides disagree over how to interpret the controversial Florida Voter Verification Law, better known as the "no match, no vote" law that applies to anyone who registered to vote after Sept. 8. The law requires that the driver's license or Social Security number provided on a voter registration application match the number in the state's database.
Roughly 12,000 would-be voters have been snagged by the new requirement and should have received letters telling them to contact their local election supervisors to clear up the discrepancies.
If they don't, Browning says elections officials should give provisional ballots to no-match voters who show up at the polls and tell them they have 48 hours to deliver, e-mail or fax any identification documents to the elections office. The documents will then be reviewed by the county canvassing board, which decides if the vote counts.
But Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark announced this month that she'll give no-match voters a chance to correct any problems while they're at the polls on Election Day. If they do, she'll hand them a regular ballot. About 30 other county elections supervisors have announced policies similar to Clark's, to Browning's chagrin.
Browning and his staff contend that all 67 counties should follow the same approach, or the state could face a lawsuit over the lack of uniform vote-counting methods.
Provisional ballots were supposed to do away with controversy, not stir up more. In the 2000 presidential election, some Florida voters were turned away from the polls because workers mistakenly thought they weren't registered to vote or were felons prohibited from voting.
A 2002 federal law, the Help America Vote Act, called for the states to issue provisional ballots to those would-be voters.
The first test of provisional balloting came with the 2004 presidential primaries — and the test showed that the provisional ballots frequently did not get counted.
Across Florida, county canvassing boards rejected 41 percent of the approximately 2,000 provisional ballots cast in the 2004 primaries, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties threw out more than half of their provisional ballots.
In the 2004 general election, only 36 percent of the provisional ballots were counted, according to a study by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States.
That trend appears to be changing. Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho said of the 195 provisional ballots cast during the August presidential primary, 178 were deemed legitimate by Leon's canvassing board.
In most cases, Sancho said, voters had requested absentee ballots by mail, but there was no record of the ballot being turned in, and then the voter showed up at the polls. Poll workers handed the voter a provisional ballot to prevent anyone from voting twice. Virtually all of those provisional ballots wound up being counted, he said. Most of the 17 discarded provisional ballots in Leon County were the result of a voter showing up at the wrong precinct, Sancho said.