Provisional Ballots

An Imperfect Solution


Quick Summary

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.

Expert Essays 

PCS asked several experts in the field to examine this data and provide their analysis.


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Stephanie Bosh

Officer, Communications