That Box Marked “Provisional Ballots”

There is an election news story that has been showing up in my various social networks. It caused me to reflect again on one of my regular topics– how the news stories that get shared the most tend to be the ones that fit a popular narrative. There is also a bias towards the dramatic that can make us prone to exaggerations. If you can evoke an emotional response with a story: anger, joy, fear, Schadenfreude, outrage, humor– and you can do so in a way that reinforces an existing narrative, you have the makings of a clickable story.

The story of the day: a teacher discovering a ballot box left behind at a Florida polling site has all these ingredients. It comes in a race with a razor-thin margin, in which all sides are watching to make sure there are no irregularities. It stokes fears of mishandling of ballots and lost votes, whether deliberately or through carelessness. It elicits outrage. And it happened in Florida, which adds to an existing perception that Florida is rife with election problems, an idea that dates back to the hanging chads of the Bush-Gore race. So this one is getting shared a lot. For this reason, I think it behooves us to step back and examine the story a bit more closely.

I first read about this on The Hill, but I have seen it reported in essentially the same way in other publications. A teacher told reporters that she had found a box marked “provisional ballots” left behind in the elementary school that had served as a polling place the previous day. She said she was worried that it might contain uncounted ballots.

If it did, that would be a major story of incompetence. If you only read the headline (and most people only do read the headline) you are bound to assume that this is exactly what happened. A box full of uncounted ballots was left behind. The thing is, there is nothing in the story that confirms that is what happened.  It says that the teacher worried that is what it was, and she contacted the local paper and her state representative, but not the Elections Office. The state representative did contact the Elections Office and was told the box probably contained blank ballots. The story concludes:

The report arrives as races for Senate and governor in Florida have tightened, raising the prospect that the two contests could be headed to a recount.

The Broward County Supervisor Of Elections Office did not immediately return a request for comment from The Hill.

Whether that box contains ballots, and whether it was left by mistake, is knowable, but it would require waiting to talk to someone involved with that polling place who could confirm what happened and what was supposed to happen.

Let me offer an alternative explanation for that box. I work the polls in Michigan, so I can’t speak to what happens in Florida. But in the precinct where I work, the ballots are tallied and all of the voted ballots, the provisional ballots, and the blank ballots are accounted for and taken back to the clerk’s office in a special sealed container. The box into which the voted ballots originally fell (now empty) is left behind in the school along with various other supplies. Someone comes by later and picks the stuff up.

So one possibility is that the box labeled “provisional ballots” was used for that on election day, but was then emptied. It was then filled with left-over supplies of some kind, or left empty.  When it was closed up again it locked, and it was left there on purpose but had not yet been picked up, or it was mistakenly left behind.

I don’t know that this is what happened, but it’s as much a possibility as the alternative: that someone made a major mistake and left a locked box of voted and uncounted provisional ballots at the polling place. My guess is that if there was a major gaffe that we’ll hear more about it, but if there was an innocent explanation there will not be a follow up story.

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