QUEENSBURY — A poll worker made a key mistake Tuesday night by handing the wrong ballot to a voter. But by the time he realized his error, the ballot had been fed into the machine, and it was too late to replace it.
The ballot that was supposed to be cast was the only ballot for the Women’s Equality Party line in Tuesday’s primary. Without that ballot, the official record shows that no ballots were cast for that party.
Luckily, three members of the party filed absentee ballots, so the party will be on the general election ballot with a candidate’s name. (Queensbury supervisor candidate Rachel Seeber believes those absentees are for her, although they won’t be opened and counted until next week.)
But the mistake raised questions about the primary voting process. In a different election, that one mistaken ballot could have made the difference in a race.
“Thank God it won’t change the outcome in this race,” said Warren County Board of Elections Commissioner Bill Van Ness.
But he still called the state Board of Elections to ask for help.
“There’s nothing we can do,” he said, adding that the mistake was discovered while the voter was still in the room. The poll worker immediately took responsibility for it, Van Ness said. But an inquiry quickly found that there was no way to rectify it.
“She was not allowed to get another ballot. The problem is, it had been fed into the machine,” he said.
It’s impossible to get the ballot back, at that point, and voters cannot vote twice.
If the mistake had potentially changed the outcome of a race, Van Ness said, they’d all be heading to court to sort it out. He’s not sure what would happen then.
Now they will use the experience to double-down on their poll worker training.
They were already aware of the potential for error, particularly in primaries, where two different ballots are sometimes on the same table, handled by one set of poll workers.
“We train heavily on it for primaries,” said Warren County Board of Elections Commissioner Beth McLaughlin. “They were supposed to have the poll books with the ballots underneath.”
She doesn’t plan to separate primaries in the future, which would be a costly endeavor as each different location would need to be staffed by poll workers. Instead, she’ll focus on training.
“We just have to stress this,” she said.
The commissioners had deliberately decided to put the Women’s Equality Party with the Conservative and Republican primaries to protect voters’ privacy. Three of the six party members had already voted by absentee, leaving a maximum of three people to come to the polls.
In the end, only one person came to vote in the Women’s Equality Party primary. Since the results are posted by party, anyone who saw who entered the building would have known how she voted.
“So as to ensure their privacy, that’s why we did it together,” Van Ness said.
In the future, the county may move to electronic poll books, if the technology is approved by the state, McLaughlin said. An electronic system was tested Tuesday, but it was not used for every voter.
In the future, that system would also tell poll workers which ballot to use, as a way to double-check they were giving voters the right one.
Electronic poll books in North Carolina may have been hacked in the last presidential election, and the state is investigating. Warren County’s test involved laptops that were not connected to the Internet, however. The commissioners used a thumb drive to transfer the poll book data from their county computers to each laptop. They believe that system will be safe, although they will not rely solely on electronic poll books until that is approved by the state.