Dan Aschenbrenner exited the Godsman Elementary School polling place in Denver yesterday afternoon with surprisingly serene smile on his face. The 48-year-old had just cast his first ballot — ever. But it was a long, bumpy ride to get there.
The story begins in September, when Aschenbrenner was approached by a voter registration-drive volunteer outside of a grocery store near his home. Aschenbrenner had never registered before — he had never before been asked to, he explains — but he signed up this time.
However, a technical mistake kept Aschenbrenner’s registration from making it onto the state’s rolls. It appears that he neglected to check a box on the form indicating that he would use his Social Security number instead of a state ID or driver’s license. Thousands of voters state-wide suffered from this so-called “check box” problem. But Denver County Clerk and Recorder Stephanie O’Malley promised a quick fix to the “check box” voters by allowing them to cure their registrations at the polls and vote by regular ballot on Election Day.
Aschenbrenner had an inkling that there were problems with his registration. He received a call from the local Democratic Party indicating as much. Project Vote, a non-partisan civic engagement organization in Washington, D.C., had also picked up on Aschenbrenner’s issue, including him on a list of canceled voters across the country, which is how the Colorado Independent found him.
Aschenbrennner says he wasn’t surprised to learn about the problem. “I thought, ‘It figures.’ I thought maybe I had waited too long. Or that the politics of the situation kept new people from getting on the rolls, like they’d be better off cutting anyone they couldn’t depend on.” (He had registered as an independent.)
When Aschenbrenner called Denver County on Monday, an election worker told him that he should have put his driver’s license number on the form instead of his Social Security number. However, Aschenbrenner said he didn’t check the box on the registration, and that may have been the fatal flaw.
On Tuesday morning, he decided to try his luck at the polls. He arrived at St. John’s Lutheran School in Denver’s Washington Park at 11 a.m. But, it turns out, the election worker was wrong about his polling place, and he was quickly rerouted to an elementary school on the other side of town.
Undeterred and unworried about missing work — he installs fire alarms for a living on his own schedule — Aschenbrenner arrived at Godsman Elementary School ready to vote. The poll worker couldn’t find his name in the poll book, which Aschenbrenner expected. But then something curious happened. Aschenbrenner was told to go to a different office and fix his registration, or else vote provisionally at the school.
“[The poll worker] said there is no difference between a provisional and a regular ballot,” Aschenbrenner says.
But as a “check box” voter, Aschenbrenner should have been able to fix his registration right then and there and vote a regular ballot.
“They should have taken care of it there at his regular polling place,” says Nancy Reubert, director of communications with the Denver County Clerk and Recorder’s office. “He should have been able to vote a regular ballot. Whether [the poll workers] were overwhelmed or confused, it sounds like they didn’t handle it the way procedures were given.”
Aschenbrenner isn’t the only one who may have mistakenly been given a provisional ballot. According to Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, several polling places were very liberal with their administration of provisional ballots, which are verified in the two weeks after Election Day.
“Provisional ballots are the fail-safe ballot,” she says. “In some polling places, we have gotten reports that as soon as people are not found on the poll book, they are rushed over to a provisional ballot. This creates an extra step for the voter to be counted. If that person is eligible, we would much rather see them get a regular ballot.”
In El Paso County, State Sen. John Morse also expressed concerns about over-use of provisional ballots. “[They] are being given out at the first sign of a problem,” he says.
Yet even though Aschenbrenner may have been given a provisional form in error, he still felt satisfied. He said he didn’t see much difference in voting provisionally. And voting, he said, made him realize that he has a stake in policy. “I think it makes me aware that things are changing all the time, and that I am going to be subject to the results.”