Driven to Vote: North Dakotan Makes 200-Mile Unsuccessful Road Trip After Voter Roll Mix-Up


[Image courtesy of messingwiththemind]

You’ll remember that earlier this week, I talked about how elections are an intensely human process and here’s a story that proves it: a North Dakota voter drove 200 miles across the state to cast his ballot – just find out he couldn’t – after a mix-up with the voter rolls. The Bismarck Tribune has more:

A man spent his election day in a failed attempt to cast his ballot by first learning his new address wasn’t on file at a polling location in Bismarck then crisscrossing the state to his old voting location in Dickinson at the suggestion of poll workers.

Kyle Thiel, of Bismarck, is one of a handful of voters who reported being turned away from the polls Tuesday when his updated address information wasn’t found in the state’s central voter file.

Thiel, 32, explained Thursday via email that he moved to Bismarck in August from Dickinson. On Aug. 25, he updated his address online through the North Dakota Department of Transportation website as directed on the back of his driver’s license.

Although he’d updated his information online, Thiel said his license still had his Dickinson address on it. He said he hadn’t found the time to go get a new license, something he acknowledged would have helped.

When Thiel went to vote in Bismarck, local election workers couldn’t find his updated address information in the system. After being directed to the DOT office for verification, he was told that information couldn’t be accessed.

Thiel said he went back to the polling location to explain what happened and was directed to travel to Dickinson to vote.

“I asked if I was indeed supposed to travel 200 miles round trip to Dickinson, vote where I am not a legal resident and commit voter fraud. I was told yes,” Thiel said.

Thiel traveled to Dickinson and was told he couldn’t vote because he was no longer a resident there.

He contacted the Secretary of State’s office on Wednesday and was told his address change had been confirmed by the DOT and he should have been allowed to vote in Bismarck.

In the aftermath, state and local officials are sorting out what happened and what can be done to fix it:

John Arnold, voting facilitator for the North Dakota Association of Counties, works as a liaison between county election officials and the state.

“We’re looking into why this might have happened,” Arnold said. “We want everybody to be able to vote, of course.”

Arnold said he’s heard of several instances of problems with address information being wrong or not on file.

Arnold explained that the DOT sends out a file weekly to its vendor, which is then separated by county and sent to appropriate counties. Three counties take the data and input it themselves rather than through the state: Burleigh, McLean and McIntosh.

Arnold said, right now, the priority is seeing if the individual’s information had gotten lost in the process somehow and go from there.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger said in an email to the Tribune that his office had been made aware of a handful of voters’ information not being updated in the central voter file.

“However, since Burleigh County is one of the few counties that handles their own update of information provided by DOT, we do not know why the updated address did not appear in the records populated by Burleigh County,” Jaeger said. “As always, we review the entire election process to see if any changes need to be recommended for the next session.”

The good news (small as it is) is that it appears everyone Thiel encountered wanted – and tried – to help, but he wants to make sure no one else has to spend Election Day on the road:

Thiel said election workers in Burleigh and Stark counties took his problem seriously and tried to help.

Regardless of whether it’s one vote or thousands impacted by a problem such as this, Thiel said it’s a cause for concern.

“Everyone should be concerned that different government entities can’t work together to ensure that something as simple as voting in 21st century United States is handled accurately,” Thiel said. “My seven hours and over 200 miles of driving attempting to vote is minuscule compared to other problems we will face if a simple glitch can threaten our democracy.”

Now this is obviously an extreme case, but Thiel’s experience isn’t unusual as more and more states and localities look to integrate various databases to keep voter rolls accurate. [NOTE: Registration reform won’t help here; North Dakota is unique among states in that it does not register voters.] The election team at Pew and others interested in improving voter rolls are increasingly looking at upgrading the performance of state motor vehicle agencies, and this story should be a powerful motivator for those efforts.

Here’s to Mr. Thiel for going above and beyond to (try to) cast a ballot – and also to the men and women who tried to help him along the way. More importantly, this story serves as a reminder to those of us who live in the policy world of elections never to forget the very human side of the Election Day experience.

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