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Provisional Ballots: Information Can Help Rescue "Lost" Voters

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[Image courtesy of articlesbase]

This week's Pew Dispatch looks at provisional ballot data from the 2011 election in Ohio.

Here's what the analysis found:

Provisional ballot use increased in 72 counties, remained the same in seven counties, and decreased in nine counties. While the number of overall provisional ballots grew in 2011, the proportion of provisional ballots counted decreased. The study found that most of the provisional ballots were rejected for one of three reasons:
  • + 40.2 percent were rejected because the voter was not listed as registered to vote in Ohio;
  • + 21.2 percent were rejected for voting at the wrong precinct and wrong polling place; and
  • + 16.2 percent were rejected for voting at the wrong precinct within the correct polling place [often called the "right church, wrong pew" problem - ed.].

Provisional ballots are always interesting for a couple of reasons. First, they are a strong indicator of the health of the voter list; the more provisional ballots cast, the more people who went to the polls thinking they were registered but were not. Second, in the majority of states (like Ohio) where provisional ballots must be cast in the proper polling place, provisional ballots can be an indication of voter confusion - resulting in the rejection of ballots even for those individuals who are otherwise validly registered to vote.

Often, the focus in the field (especially in the media) is on how many of the provisional ballots cast actually get counted - and suggest that that the higher this number is, the better the jurisdiction is performing. In this way, provisional ballots are seen as a kind of safety net for voters.

In truth, however, what we should really be focusing on is reducing the number of provisional ballots cast - and more importantly, ensuring that very few of the (hopefully) very few provisional ballots cast are counted - because those voters were never eligible in the first place. In this model, potential problems are prevented before they occur.

The recipe for achieving this goal is straightforward:

  1. Establish reliable information sources for voters to check their registration status, identify their polling place and learn what (if any) ID they need;
  2. Encourage all voters to develop a regular habit of checking these sources before every election; and
  3. Ensure that the information is current and accurate right up until Election Day.

This model - which gives voters the tools to self-diagnose and thus prevent and/or cure problems that might arise on Election Day - will not only help reduce the number of provisional ballots but will also prevent confusion at the polls. Information such as this is increasingly important in the years following a decennial census, when new districts yield new precincts and polling places that may be unfamiliar to even the most experienced voter. Moreover, the growing consolidation of polling places in many jurisdictions creates myriad opportunities for voters to end up in the "wrong pew" and potentially lose their votes.

The Ohio data cited by Pew reaffirms that provisional ballots are a valuable tool for preventing the accidental disenfranchisement of otherwise eligible voters; however, our goal should be not to count as many provisional ballots as we can but rather to give voters the information they need to ensure that they don't cast a provisional ballot in the first place.


  • You miss one key aspect of Ohio's provisional ballot law... Ohio allows a voter to cast a provisional ballot in order to change their address. Most states do not allow this as part of the provisional process. This existed in Ohio prior to the passage of HAVA and remained as other reasons for provisionals were added after HAVA. Before you judge the number of provisionals that are cast in the state it is helpful to know the laws regarding provisionals in the state. Would it be better if Ohio had less provisional ballots but didn't allow the flexibility to go to the correct polling place, change your address, and cast a ballot?

  • Totally agree with you... you are right.

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