More than a week after Election Day, much remains murky in Georgia and Florida. But one thing is clear: Provisional ballots, often forgotten and minimized, will determine the results. Provisional ballots are a proven fail-safe for voters across the country, but their role in the political dramas playing out this week illustrates how the little-understood tool can fall prey to political manipulation. When candidates inaccurately attack provisional ballots as perpetuating voter fraud, they take advantage of a complicated process many Americans don’t understand. And when states decline to count all the provisional ballots or discard some on questionable grounds, then the system doesn’t work for all voters. Created by a federal law in 2002, provisional ballots are supposed to be a protection against administrative and technical errors that prevent registered voters from casting a normal ballot on Election Day. In other circumstances, voters cast a provisional ballot if they go to the wrong polling place or, in some states, forget their photo ID.
Local officials add each one to the tally only after they confirm that it was cast by a registered voter.
Regardless of how close a race is, officials are supposed to verify and count every provisional ballot.
Myrna Pérez, the deputy director of the democracy program at Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said state and local election officials need to make sure provisional ballot protections are utilized to the fullest.
“They are supposed to be a fail-safe,” Pérez told Stateline. “But if provisional ballots are just placebos, they’re not doing their intended purpose, and they’re just an administrative drain.”