An Imperfect Solution
This July 2009 brief serves as an introduction to a larger discussion regarding the role of provisional ballots as a partial solution to underlying problems in our election system.
Provisional ballots are issued for a variety of reasons when a voter's eligibility is in question at the polls. According to new research by the Pew Center on the States, more than two million provisional ballots were submitted nationwide during the 2008 presidential election. Of these, more than 1.4 million, or approximately 70 percent of all provisional ballots, were counted. These national numbers, however, tell only part of the story. State-by-state data indicate the rates at which states and local jurisdictions issued and counted provisional ballots varied greatly, as did the reasons why these same ballots were rejected. For example:
- Four states account for two-thirds of all provisional ballots submitted nationwide—Arizona, California, New York and Ohio;
- Ten states counted more than 75 percent of their provisional ballots, while 17 states counted less than 45 percent; and
- More than 200,000 provisional ballots were rejected because the person was not registered in the state.
Provisional ballots provide a partial, but imperfect solution to underlying problems in our election system. They have successfully allowed millions of voters who otherwise would be unable to cast ballots to have their voices heard. Each provisional ballot submitted, however, also represents a citizen who, for whatever reason, has encountered some sort of problem in the voting process.
Over time, this new report indicates that more complete data could provide opportunities to rigorously assess specific problems and identify the means to building an election system that achieves the highest standards of accuracy, convenience, efficiency and security.
PCS asked several experts in the field to examine this data and provide their analysis.
Provisional Ballots: The Miner's Canary for Election Administration, by Heather Gerken, Yale University Law School
Author of the Democracy Index, Gerken provides an overview of the other pieces and pushes for better election data collection.
What A Better Election Data System Might Look Like, by Toby Moore, Research Triangle Institute
Moore uses the provisional ballot data as a springboard to discuss what a better election data collection system might be.
Unsuccessful Provisional Voting in the 2008 General Election, By David C. Kimball, University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Edward B. Foley, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
Kimball and Foley describe a measure that can help pinpoint areas where the voter registration system serves as a barrier to a relatively large number of voters.
Early- and Late-Adopters of Provisional Ballots, Charles Stewart III, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Stewart analyzes provisional ballot use, comparing states that used them prior to passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to those that implemented them after HAVA.
Voter Identification, Michael J. Pitts, Indiana University School of Law–Indianapolis
Pitts discusses that the low number of provisional ballots rejected due to lack of proper identification might not provide a complete picture.
Provisional Voting In New Mexico, Lonna Rae Atkeson, University of New Mexico, R. Michael Alvarez, California Institute of Technology, Thad E. Hall, University of Utah
The trio of researchers examine 2008 provisional ballot data in New Mexico.
Provisional Ballots in the 2008 Ohio General Election, R. Michael Alvarez, California Institute of Technology, and Thad E. Hall, University of Utah
Alvarez and Hall researchers examine 2008 provisional ballot data in Ohio.