Provisional Voting: The Agony, The Ecstasy

As a former election administrator, provisional voting stirs up mixed and warm feelings. When training precinct officials on the provisional voting process in Durham, North Carolina, I was approached with the same question ad nauseum: “But what if we KNOW that the ballot won’t count, do we STILL let her vote?”  And my song was always the same, “Thou shalt turn no one away.”

On one hand, provisional voting enfranchises voters.  Love it!  Provisionals allow a voter who is not listed on the voter rolls in a precinct on Election day, at perhaps no fault of her own, to cast an official ballot. The paper ballots are retrievable and, if processed correctly, the voter registration database is exhaustively researched before the ballot is denied, partially counted, or completely counted. Provisional voting, born out of the Help America Vote Act in 2002 , is fail-safe voting.  Its end product is a voter with an accurate and active registration, a cleaner database, and election results sparkling with integrity.

On the other hand, the provisional process, by simply existing, acknowledges the inadequacies of our states’ voter registration systems.  But that is another blog post.

How can the Voting Information Project help election administrators and voters skip provisional paperwork? In November 2008, Durham County Board of Elections doubled its staff so that over 1800 provisionals could be processed before canvass. Nearly 64% of those provisionals were approved. The bulk of provisional voters in Durham County were folks who were registered and decided to vote at a precinct that was not their assigned precinct.  We can help remedy that.  If VIP can connect voters with their registration update deadlines and/or guide them to their correct polling places on Election day, provisional ballots can be minimized.  And that means less grief for voters, precinct officials, and election administrators.  Three cheers for democracy!

To dive deeper into the provisional voting process, you can splash around in a Pew report and an awesome collection of provisional voting information by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Michelle Shim