Some Voters Get 2 Ballots – Virginia Election System Needs Improvements

A voter in Windsor Hills of Roanoke County, Gene Rose, recently shared his unsettling Election Day story.

“I voted early on Sept. 26, 2023 in Vinton . . . On the morning of Nov. 7 (Election Day) I heard about a man in Cave Spring who was told at his poll that the poll book showed the man hadn’t voted yet. But he had early voted at the Brambleton Center.  The afternoon of Nov. 7 I decided to go to my poll (Hidden Valley Middle School) to see if the poll book showed I had already voted. I gave the man at check-in my driver’s license and asked if I had already voted.

“He looked my name up, but then had a perplexed look on his face. He asked if I had voted absentee and I said no. (My assumption was and is that early voting is not absentee/mail-in.) He said the poll book screen didn’t show I that I had voted, but said it looked as though I could only vote as Provisional. He then called a superior over who also appeared perplexed when she looked at the poll book screen. She asked if I had voted absentee and I said no.

“She then told me to come to her desk so I could vote a Provisional (ballot). She gave me the Provisional envelope to fill out which I did. She then directed me to the two ladies with the ballots and asked them to give me (one). I (…) filled it out (…) placed it in the envelope, and carried it back to the supervisor. I told her I had early voted weeks before and asked that she notate on the envelope that I had voted early and wasn’t trying to cast two votes; I was just trying to ensure that one of my votes was counted.

“The supervisor noted that (…) and said she would send the envelope to the Registrar to have the matter sorted out….

“The following week I spoke to Anna Cloeter, the Registrar, by phone and asked for an explanation as to why the folks at Hidden Valley didn’t know I had early voted and why the man in Cave Spring had a similar experience…. Cloeter was very forthcoming about the events (…) and explained my original vote had counted and the provisional was not. She also sent me a photo of what she thought the poll book showed for me on Election Day.

“From our conversation I concluded the screen on the poll book was confusing; it did not show clearly (…) that I had early voted or date and time of that vote, but it did show I was only permitted to vote a Provisional ballot on Election Day. It is my opinion that the information available to the poll workers must be much better before the next election.”

The Roanoke Star reached out to Roanoke County Registrar Anna Cloeter and Electoral Board Chairman, Ken Srpan, who is one of two Republicans appointed to the three-member board. (The composition of each locality’s Electoral Board is determined by which party occupies the Governor’s Mansion at that time. As reported here, Cloeter is the daughter of the former Roanoke County Democrat Committee Chairperson.)

In addition to requesting a statement, it was explained to them that one Officer of Election in Roanoke City had observed, on Election Day, those who had already voted early had a bright exclamation mark by their name, the horizontal bar containing their name was bright pink, and the link was not clickable. That is, by Election Day, a City resident who had already voted could not be checked in by the poll book worker.

In a Nov. 16 email, Cloeter wrote: “As with Roanoke City, Roanoke County’s pollbooks also have a message that says that the person has already voted.  Mr. Rose’s voter record on the pollbooks would have appeared to the officers at his precinct as follows:

Roanoke Co. 2023 poll book screenshot. Note: it is not obvious that the voter had already voted early, and “voted,” “provisional,” and “check in” are all oddly labeled “false.”

“As you can see, the only option available to the officers was to issue a provisional ballot.  Provisional ballots are not cast on machine, they are placed into provisional ballot envelopes which are then returned to our office on Election Night, investigated to determine the eligibility of the voter to cast that provisional ballot, and then adjudicated by the Electoral Board before canvass is complete.  In Mr. Rose’s case, we confirmed that he had voted in person at our office on September 26th, which was consistent with the voter credit we uploaded from the pollbook to the State’s voter registration and election administration database after polls closed on the 26th and the check in receipts we maintain for all early in person voters in our office.”

Voter Check-in receipt for Sept. 26, 2023

Cloeter continued: “Because we were able to confirm that he had already voted in person and on machine, Mr. Rose’s provisional ballot was not accepted/counted.

“What we’ve learned from this incident is that, despite mandatory training before every election, it can be difficult for officers who only use the pollbook equipment once or twice a year to fully understand our terminology.  While these terms are all state-designated voter statuses that must be included in our pollbooks, but as a result of this, we’re planning to supplement the existing absentee status messages regarding voters whose ballots have been cast and counted on future voter detail screens with simplified terms.  For example, we will try to use ALREADY VOTED EARLY (instead of ON MACHINE), ALREADY VOTED BY MAIL (instead of PRE-PROCESSED or MARKED), or ALREADY VOTED TODAY (once the voter has been checked in on Election Day) and to remove many of the additional fields that are currently listed below that screen below in an effort to prevent further confusion.

“I would also note that provisional voters are not the only voters who may receive more than one ballot during an election – voters who appear in person and mismark or damage their ballots are allowed to spoil their original ballot and receive/mark a new one, absentee voters who requests ballots by mail and don’t receive, lose, mismark, or accidentally destroy them may be issued a new ballot by mail after completing a reissue request, and voters who have requested absentee ballots by mail but later change their mind and decide to vote in person are given the opportunity to either complete an in person reissue request and surrender the ballot they received by mail in exchange for an in person ballot or cast a provisional ballot in person if they do not have the ballot they were sent by mail.”

In a Nov. 17 email Srpan stated: “As Chair of the Roanoke County Electoral Board I want to emphasize the fact that two county voters receiving two ballots is not unusual.  In fact with the advent of early voting it happens more and more often (emphasis mine). Only about 40% of the requested mail-in ballots were returned. Of those who received mail-in ballots many have tried to vote in person on election day. But the poll books say they have received a ballot. Hence, provisional ballots. So, in reality these voters received two ballots.

“Provisional ballots are designed to allow all eligible voters to cast a ballot, if there is any question when voting in person.

“The bottom line is the system worked. The electoral board determined the voters in question had indeed voted earlier and the provisional was rejected.

“Only one vote per voter was allowed. That’s always the case because the system works.”

Srpan described the size of the registrar’s office. “There are five full-time staff members. Part time is seasonal. The number varies depending on need for each early voting period.”

Regarding that office’s budget, Srpan noted: “For Fiscal Year 2024, Personnel – $658,872; Non-Personnel – $219,540; Total – $878,412.”

As reported here, $109,000 of that, roughly 12% of the total, is Cloeter’s salary.

It is unclear why, with five full-time employees and an annual budget of nearly $900,000, the Registrar’s office was unable to set up poll books with a crystal-clear message flagging residents who had already voted, and adequately train poll workers to understand the symbols.

Despite assurances from Cloeter and Srpan that “the system worked as it was supposed to” in the case of Mr. Rose, there is still the disturbing issue of the Cave Spring voter. Here, Rose summarizes what he was told and his response. “One batch of early votes was uploaded to the system, but was rejected and the rejection wasn’t acted on. The result was the Nov. 7 poll books that morning did not show that the early voters in the reject batch had in fact already voted (emphasis mine). At some point on Nov. 7, someone in the Registrar’s office realized the error and updated the poll books in the precincts. In theory, they could have walked in before the poll books were updated and voted a second time. People who vote early or by absentee might forget they had done so and voted a second time innocently or intentionally. A fail-safe system must be established to prevent this situation in the future.”

Some questions still linger:

  • Why were the poll books set up so that an early vote was not clearly identified?
  • If we take a “plain English translation” of Cloeter’s comments that the poll workers on Election Day were not adequately trained, how can we be sure those who screen Provisional ballots after election day are adequately trained?
  • As reported here, Cloeter became Registrar in 2017 and after the 2020 elections, the Roanoke County Republican Committee had to request a judge issue a writ of mandamus against Cloeter, a legal order to perform her job as required by law. Why, after the passage of several years, are Roanoke County poll books not clearer about who has voted already?
  • Democrats, who then controlled the Governorship and legislature, in 2020 set up the current system where Virginia has the earliest voting in the nation, widespread mail-in and provisional ballots, Election Day registration, etc. If the system is so complex that it even confuses paid people trained in it, does that not open the door to more “innocent mistakes”? Or potential fraud?

Since Virginia will have presidential primaries on March 5, early voting begins January 19.

–Scott Dreyer

Updated 7:35 pm, 11-20-23 and 11:48 am, 11-21-23.

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