The fail-safe for many voters who run into problems at the polls — such as a lack of ID or an outdated address — is called provisional voting. The person votes, and his or her ballot only counts after the problem is resolved. But many of these ballots never do count, raising questions about how good a fail-safe they really are. In Virginia, for example, some residents have been preparing to meet a new state requirement that all voters show a photo ID at the polls. Bernest Sellars, 87, is one of several elderly voters who lined up recently to get a new ID at a senior center in Arlington. After checking that he’s registered to vote, county election workers ask Sellars to look into a tiny camera attached to a laptop computer. His new photo immediately pops up on the screen. For the most part, this process is pretty easy. Still, it’s estimated that 200,000 voters in the state might not have the right ID. If they show up at the polls, they’ll likely be asked to use a provisional ballot.
Arlington County General Registrar Linda Lindberg says the voter then has three days to clear up any problems. “If they just forgot to bring their license, they can shoot us an email with a copy of their license. But if they absolutely have no ID, they are going to need to come down to our office, where we’ll take their photo just as we’re doing here today, and print out a temporary ID,” she says. That will allow their ballot to be counted. Lindberg says the county only counted about half of the 161 provisional ballots cast there last year — and rejected the rest.
Around the country this fall, more than a million provisional ballots will likely be cast — not only because people lack ID, but more likely because poll workers can’t find the voter’s name on the rolls. That happens a lot. If the past is any indication, at least a quarter of these votes won’t count. “The main reason is that the voter is not in the correct polling place or in the correct jurisdiction,” Lindberg says.
In Virginia that means the vote doesn’t count, but that’s not the case everywhere. The rules for provisional ballots vary widely. In some states, like California, they’re routinely used to update a voter’s information, such as a new address. In other states, they’re rarely used — and even more rarely counted.