By Chip Reid Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/7/2004 7:22:05 PM ET 2004-10-07T23:22:05

When Adam Borland showed up to vote in the Illinois primary last March, he was shocked to find his name was not on the list of registered voters. He was told he could vote, but only on a provisional ballot — which would be counted later, if his registration was verified.

"I voted, gave them my ballot, didn't hear anything for a month and a half and then got a letter in the mail saying that my vote had not been counted," says Borland.

He wasn't alone. Some 93 percent of the provisional ballots cast in Chicago in that election were later thrown out — most for highly technical reasons. That's a far cry from what Congress intended when, two years ago, it required all states to allow provisional voting.

The purpose was to avoid a repeat of the mess in Florida in 2000, when thousands of registered voters whose names were erroneously not listed were simply turned away.

In November, well over a million voters are expected to use provisional ballots — but the rules vary state to state. Some voting experts say there could be chaos on — and long after —Election Day.

"In many places there are untrained poll workers, there are not good lists, this will be a disaster," says Chellie Pingree of Common Cause.

In the swing state of Ohio, the fight over provisional voting is so intense that Democrats have sued the state in federal court. They claim the rules are so strict that tens of thousands of votes could be thrown out. Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell has ruled that provisional ballots will be counted only if the voter goes to the right polling place.

"Expecting someone to cast a ballot in the precinct in which he or she lives is a time tested reasonable rule in the state of Ohio," says Blackwell.

But critics say that rule penalizes newly registered voters who are more likely to go to the wrong precinct.

"It's going to mean that many more people this time around are going to have their votes not counted when they thought they were," says Democratic State Senator Mark Mallory.

Similar lawsuits are raging in Michigan, Missouri, Colorado and Florida. All are rushing to clarify the rules, so that provisional voting doesn't become the "hanging chad" of this year's presidential election.

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