The minuscule margin of votes between Virginia’s two attorney general candidates has brought renewed attention to a relatively new aspect of voting in Virginia: the provisional ballot. There were about 3,170 provisional votes cast in the attorney general’s race on Election Day, out of 2.2 million total votes. The difference between the two candidates is currently 164 votes. Before 2012, voters that poll workers could not find on poll books could vote if they signed an affidavit that they were who they said they were and were registered to vote. But lawmakers felt that wasn’t secure enough. The provisional ballot, created by state law in 2012, is how people vote if they show up at the polls and have no identification, or if there is some doubt about whether they are registered to vote or registered at the precinct where they have come to vote.
Provisional ballots are not counted on Election Day. Instead, each is put into a special, sealed envelope. The voter has three days to bring ID to the local registrar, or provide more information on why the vote was proper and should be counted.
Local electoral boards then vote on which ballots to count and which to reject—a process done before those ballots are opened or read.
The provisional ballot has gotten a lot of attention in the past week because the attorney general’s race between Democrat Mark Herring and Republican Mark Obenshain is so tight—and provisional ballots have helped narrow the gap.
In most localities, only a handful of ballots were provisional, and they didn’t shift things much. But Fairfax County—a county of more than a million people, which registered more than 300,000 votes in the attorney general’s race—had 489 provisional votes. The electoral board there allowed provisional voters to come in to give testimony through the weekend, and ultimately accepted 271 of those provisional ballots Tuesday night.