As the presidential race narrows in Ohio, the Buckeye State runs the risk of preventing the United States from calling a winner for days after the Nov. 6 election. A wild card in declaring a winner on Election Night could be thousands provisional ballots. Provisionals are given to voters when their eligibility is in question, often because of address changes or discrepancies. Election boards hold the ballots 10 days to determine eligibility. “If it’s a really tight race, we could be in a position where we don’t know [the winner] until provisional ballots are counted,” said Edward Foley, director of Election Law @ Moritz, a program at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. “If Ohio is held up, and Ohio is essential to know who won, then the presidency is going to get held up.”
Ohio is said to have one of the highest provisional ballot rates in the country. More than 200,000 provisional ballots were cast in Ohio in 2008. About 40,000 were determined to be ineligible.
… Foley said Ohio law allows poll workers broad discretion to issue provisional ballots. The philosophy is, “if there’s uncertainty, let’s let them have a provisional ballot and we’ll catch up with it later,” he said.
A voter may be given a provisional ballot for any number of reasons: Their name doesn’t appear on the poll list, their signature doesn’t match the signature on the registration form, or they lack valid identification. Also, a voter who requests an absentee ballot but doesn’t use it and instead shows up at the polls will be given a provisional ballot.