If you vote in person during the Nov. 3 presidential election, you may be asked to fill out a provisional ballot. Provisional ballots, also called affidavit ballots, are given to a voter when a question arises about that person’s eligibility.
Such a situation may occur if your name does not appear on the voter rolls, or if you did not bring proper identification, or, in some states, if you received a mail-in ballot but are trying to vote in person instead.
Provisional ballots, which are specially marked, are intended to prevent disenfranchisement. If election officials later determine that a person who cast a provisional ballot is in fact eligible, their provisional ballot is counted just like a normal one.
“The point of provisional ballots is to be able to give voters who think that a mistake was made [about their eligibility] the opportunity to cast a ballot that will count, while at the same time giving elections administrators a chance to look at their records and make an assessment on whether there was eligibility,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the New York-based Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program.
With so many people being sent or requesting mail-in ballots in 2020, Pérez said she expects to see a higher number of provisional ballots cast than usual. In some states, if you originally requested or automatically received a mailed ballot but later decide you want to vote in person, you may be given a provisional ballot so officials can check that you aren’t voting twice.
In New Jersey, for example, changing your mind and voting in person will require casting a provisional ballot that will be counted once officials determine you have not already mailed your previous one.
The most common reasons provisional ballots are rejected
The top two reasons provisional ballots end up not counting are because a person wasn’t registered in the state (40.2%) or because they were registered but voted in the wrong precinct or jurisdiction (24.3%), according to a 2018 Election Administration and Voting Survey.
In at least 19 states, your provisional ballot will be partially counted if you vote in the wrong precinct. This means your vote will count toward races in which you would have been eligible to vote regardless of precinct, such as a federal offices, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
States have varying timeframes for how quickly they process provisional ballots after Election Day, but the ultimate decision on your vote should not be a mystery. You have the right to get an explanation in writing from your local election official for how to check if your provisional ballot was counted.
“You are supposed to be given a piece of paper that tells you how you find out if your provisional ballot was counted, or whether it was counted and what notice and opportunities you have,” Pérez said. “Not everybody gives [voters] the form.”
Pérez said you should not wait for your state’s canvassing deadline to follow up, especially if you need to take further action before your vote can be counted. Sometimes, for example, people who forgot to bring ID on Election Day will need to verify their identity at a local elections office in order for their provisional ballot to count.
“If it were my vote, I would call the very next day,” Pérez said. “I’d call the election office, I would tell them, ’This is what I did. What do I need to do? Where do I get to bring my information? Anything I felt like I didn’t understand, I would be on top of the very next day.”
Not every state does provisional ballots, but some do A LOT.
Under the 2002 Help America Vote Act, states are required to give registered voters the option of casting provisional ballots if their eligibility is in question. This isn’t necessary in states that have same-day voter registration, like Idaho, Minnesota and New Hampshire. Nor is the option pertinent in North Dakota, where simply being an official state resident automatically allows one to vote.
In the 2016 presidential election, two-thirds of all provisional ballots were cast in just a handful of states: California (which accounted for more than half of those issued), Arizona, New York and Ohio, according to the Election Assistance Commission.
Here’s how provisional ballots work in those states:
Voters who are not on a polling location’s roster and are unable to provide a valid form of identification, such as a driver license or a tribal enrollment card, will receive a provisional ballot. You can check its status at my.arizona.vote.
Some of the common reasons for getting a provisional ballot include:
- You moved but did not update your voter registration record to reflect it.
- Your name does not appear on the list of registered voters and the eligibility to vote cannot be verified at the polling place.
- Your name, unless it is a changed surname, or address is different than what is listed on the roster lists.
- You did not surrender a received vote-by-mail ballot and the precinct board, vote center election board, or elections official cannot verify if you have returned your voted vote-by-mail ballot.
You can look up the number to call to check your provisional ballot by county.
People may be given affidavit ballots if they are first-time voters unable to provide identification with their voter registration application or if they are not found on poll lists.
Don’t count yourself out of the voting process, though. “If you believe that you are eligible, you can still vote,” as New York City’s Board of Elections emphasizes. “Ask for an affidavit ballot. After the election, the Board of Elections… will check its records and your vote will be counted if you are indeed eligible to vote and are at the correct poll site.”
Scenarios that require casting a provisional ballot include:
- Your name isn’t on the official poll list for that precinct
- You are unable to provide required proof of identity
- Your name appears on the poll list as having requested an absentee ballot
- Your signature does not match the signature on your registration form
If you do not bring proof of your identity when you cast your provisional ballot, you must appear in person at your local board of elections headquarters to provide ID within seven days so your vote can be counted, according to the Ohio Secretary of State’s explainer.