Montco Reveals Awareness of ‘Motor Voter’ Registration Problems Since 2008 With Questions Still Mounting

Although Wednesday’s Montgomery County Election Board meeting came just a day after the 2011 primary, the focus was more on longstanding problems stemming from at least as far back as 2008 than issues from the day before. Montco Voter Services Executive Director Joe Passarella assured Election Board Chair Joe Hoeffel and member Judge Kelly Wall that there was no significant number of voter registration problems on Tuesday, despite the acknowledgment by state officials beginning in late April that something was amiss related to voter registrations done through the PA Department of Transportation (Penn DoT) in the county.

Just last week the PA Department of State (DoS) and Montgomery County announced that some three thousand registrations were wrongly manually entered into the statewide voter database since 2008 or 2009.

“In this election, (only) core voters come out,” explained Passarella, saying that there were very few phone calls checking on registration status, which likely indicates that voters were not disenfranchised due to registration errors last Tuesday. The Voter Services head juxtaposed the situation to that of the 2008 primary, when “there were hundreds of complaints” alleging errors in party affiliation on voter records, which kept voters from casting a ballot. He further indicated that the Election Board at that time received dozens of faxed copies of receipts that registrants received after registering or updating their record through Penn DoT. Passarella also revealed that he had been receiving “many calls” from voters about their registrations through Penn DoT as long ago as 1995, when the federal “motor voter” law was instituted. Until now, however, Voter Services and the Election Board have been silent on the subject.

At this point, the outline of the problem remains muddled, although what seems to be established is that Penn DoT-related voter registration records have been misinterpreted and mishandled at Voter Services for years, despite mounting complaints. By their own admission, there is much that Passarella and the Election Board do not know.

Passarella said that while he is confident that Penn DoT is not making errors, he would like to know more about their computer screen prompts and whether they may be confusing Penn DoT customers who connect to the voter registration option.

For example, it asks the following of customers who change their addresses on their drivers license: “If you are a registered voter, would you like us to notify your Election Board of this change?” Passarella suggested that “some people read that and think they’re registered.” There appears to be no explanation of the impact on the customer/voter of responding one way or the other. Passarella said he’d like to know what the computer tells the voter next.

Hoeffel was asked whether the press and advocates will be allowed to see the Penn DoT screens or, at least, pictures of them. He and Passarella responded vaguely that this would be possible within certain limits, Passarella saying that guidelines from DoS for each major data function could be shared but gave no indication of when or how.

Passarella also said that he is unclear about the format of some data coming in from Penn DoT and whether it could be misleading his staff. He would like to know, too, if/how Penn DoT issues receipts and is concerned that a staff person may have decided to manually process voter registrations after finding that people with receipts were not showing up in the automated database.

In addition, he went through a very preliminary rundown of the 3,200 voter records, the source of major concern by the Election Board, which appeared to spark further confusion. Of the 3,200 records of voters who may not have followed full registration procedures, he said about 2,300 have not voted at all, while 695 have done so. One hundred thirty-seven changed party, 487 switched their registration to Democrat and 255 to Republican. Some 572, he said, have since moved out of the county. Hoeffel requested a full accounting of the 3,200 records, which is expected to take at least a few weeks.

The subplot of this growing saga, which has gotten more attention from the Election Board than the systemic questions, is this: What did Passarella and Assistant Director Patti Allen know and when did they know it, in connection with the 3,200 voter records sent over by DoS more than a week before the primary? At the May 12 session of the Election Board, Allen said the significance of the list – what the records represented and what they expected to learn from them – was undetermined, as was their methodology for their planned post-primary review. But the next day, Board Chair Hoeffel, responding to a report from DoS, announced that the batch of voter records was actually data inappropriately entered into the system since 2009 (or 2008). DoS said that after an “exhaustive examination of the registration process,” that “the issue appears to be human error at the county level.”

Hoeffel told Passarella on Wednesday that “I feel personally misled and I feel you allowed your Assistant Director to come to a public meeting of the Election Board and mislead the Board. It hurts the credibility of county government,” he asserted. Passarella said that he had not had time to verify the data by that point and assumed from his conversations with DoS that he would have time to review it with DoS and Penn DoT in detail after the primary. But DoS went public the next day.

Passarella took full responsibility for the mistakes on the county level, which reportedly originate with the unilateral actions of a single employee. He then claimed that safeguards are now in place to eliminate the further mishandling of voter records. Hoeffel, however, pointed to the need for new procedures and staff training for processing the data and tasked Passarella with developing a plan for this Wednesday’s Election Board meeting.