Once reserved for emergency situations, provisional ballots were freely handed out across California on June 7 as a Times analysis finds they were used by more than one of every five primary voters who showed up at a polling place. But the wide use of provisional ballots has not been matched by any broad statewide oversight, with rules changing from one county to the next dictating when they are used and how elections officials decide whether to count them as valid votes. “You think it would be clean and simple,” said Donna Tarr, a resident of Rolling Hills Estates who volunteered to observe provisional ballot counting in Los Angeles County last month. … Tarr, 64, was one of several supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders who descended on county elections offices after the June election to observe how provisional ballots were processed and how many were actually counted. When she and others complained that some provisional ballots cast by unaffiliated “no party preference” voters were not being correctly counted in the Democratic presidential race, Los Angeles County elections officials quickly stepped in to fix the problem.
Tarr wanted to know whether it was an issue that stretched to other communities. In late June, she sent an email to state elections officials demanding they intervene to ensure similar problems weren’t happening in all of California’s 58 counties. “We said, ‘Holy cow! You can’t go on like this,’ ” Tarr said.
State election law is largely limited to the legal right of a voter to ask for a provisional ballot, while leaving a significant amount of discretion to local officials in regard to how often the ballots are used. “We’re all left to interpret these things county by county,” said Joe Canciamilla, Contra Costa County’s registrar of voters.