Provisional Ballots

By Meghan McCann and Wendy Underhill | Vol . 23, No. 32 / August 2015

NCSL NewsDid you know?

  • In 2014, 892,202 provisional ballots were submitted.
  • Seventy-two percent of provisional ballots submitted were counted, and 8.1 percent were partially counted
  • Decisions on voter ID, same-day registration and registration modernization affect the use of provisional ballots.

How would you feel if you showed up at your polling place and the poll worker couldn’t find your name on the voter roll? If you were told “Sorry, better luck next time,” you’d be mad—and you’d also be disenfranchised. Because of that possibility, provisional ballots—special ballots designed to ensure that all voters have a chance to cast a ballot even if their eligibility to vote is uncertain—are available at polling places in most states on Election Day. After the election, the ballots are investigated to determine if they will be counted.

Approximately 1 percent of general election ballots cast are provisional, although the usage rate varies widely from state to state. In the 2014 general election, 890,000 provisional ballots were used. In Alaska, provisional ballots accounted for 5.7 percent of ballots cast, whereas other states had almost none. Nationally, 19.2 percent of provisional ballots were rejected. Provisional ballots are most commonly used by voters whose names are not on the registration list or do not have state-mandated identification with them at the polls.

While there is little debate on the value of providing a fail-safe voting method, each state manages provisional ballots differently. Variations are common regarding why provisional ballots are issued; why they are rejected and thus not counted; how long election officials have to count them; whether provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct are counted; and what, if any, actions a voter must take following Election Day to ensure that his or her provisional ballot is counted.

Federal Action

The 2002 federal Help America Vote Act required states to offer provisional ballots. The only exceptions are states that offered same-day voter registration in 1993 when the National Voter Registration Act became law—Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming. North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming do use provisional ballots in certain situations, however. The Help America Vote Act requires states to develop a process for issuing, investigating and counting provisional ballots, including a process by which the voter can learn if his or her ballot was counted and the reasoning behind that decision. In practice, that means providing information either online or through the mail.

State Action

When the use of provisional ballots increases, lines get longer and costs go up. In Maricopa County, Ariz., one of the most populous counties in the country, processing provisional ballots issued during the 2012 general election cost the jurisdiction more than $477,000, at $3.89 per ballot. These concerns sometimes prompt legislative action. In addition, many election policy choices that legislators address may have implications for the use of provisional ballots, either directly or indirectly. These include the following.

Modernizing Registration. Improving accuracy of voter registration may decrease the number of provisional ballots issued because a voter’s name has been left off the poll books. Options to improve the accuracy of voter rolls include online voter registration, improving transmission of voter registration applications from motor vehicle agencies, and checking voter registration data against data from other in-state or out-of-state data sources.

Same-Day Registration. Depending on how same-day registration is implemented, it can increase or decrease the number of provisional ballots used. Usage may go up when provisional ballots are used for Election Day registrants who cannot immediately provide required identification and proof of residency. Usage may go down when a voter can register and vote a regular ballot on Election Day.

Voter ID. Voter ID requirements sometimes increase the number of provisional ballots used in cases where voters do not have the appropriate ID on Election Day. Often, these voters must then show ID within a few days of the election, or the provisional ballot is not counted.

Other questions lawmakers consider are discussed below.

What happens if the voter voted on the wrong ballot? When several precincts are housed in one polling place, it is not uncommon for a voter to get in the wrong line. In this case, the voter is offered the opportunity to either get in the right line to vote on the correct ballot, or to vote a provisional ballot, knowing that only the races for which the voter is eligible to vote will be counted.

What happens if someone votes outside his or her precinct? In some states, provisional ballots can be used by voters who go to the nearest polling place, even if it is not their correct polling place. This commonly happens toward the end of Election Day, when voters may go to the nearest polling place to vote before the polls close. State law governs whether these ballots will be rejected or counted. In 2013, Illinois and Utah passed legislation to partially count these ballots. Also in 2013, North Carolina passed legislation to prohibit counting these ballots.

Can someone who requested an absentee ballot vote on Election Day? State law dictates whether voters who were issued an absentee ballot are permitted to vote at a polling place on Election Day. In some cases, such as when the absentee ballot did not arrive and therefore was not counted, a provisional ballot may be available.

Are provisional ballots handled the same throughout the state? Statute can establish statewide procedures for when to issue and count provisional ballots, rather than relying on local interpretations.

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