Policy Change Affects Provisional Ballot Use

District of Colombia

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Pew’s recently released Elections Performance Index incorporates data from the 2012 election and finds that use and rejection of provisional ballots increased, on average, since the 2008 election. Evidence from the District of Columbia and Washington state demonstrates that policy changes can affect patterns of provisional ballot use.

The district’s rate of provisional ballots issued out of all ballots cast more than doubled between 2008 and 2012, the largest increase in the nation. This was primarily due to sweeping legislation that allowed eligible city residents to register to vote or change their registered address at the polls on Election Day. The way the law was implemented required individuals registering on Election Day to complete a provisional ballot and use the provisional ballot envelope to indicate their desire to register.

Washington state recorded a significant decrease in its rates of provisional ballots both issued and rejected out of all ballots cast in 2012. In fact, the state had the largest decrease in provisional ballots issued and the third-largest decrease in provisionals rejected.

Two factors played significant roles in these decreases:

  • First, the state shifted to entirely vote-by-mail elections in 2012. In 2008, King and Pierce counties still had in-person Election Day voting, and the two counties combined for nearly 44,000 provisional ballots cast, more than 80 percent of the state’s 54,000 provisional ballots. After these counties became the last to offer all vote-by-mail, their totals dropped to approximately 2,500 provisional ballots cast in 2012, about 35 percent of the state’s 6,800 provisional ballots issued.
  • Second, the state changed how it handled replacement ballots. In the past, voters from one county who showed up in another county’s elections office on Election Day because they had not received their mail ballots, were given provisional ballots. In 2012, a new electronic system changed that process to allow those voters to cast regular ballots. The state already had an electronic process, commonly known as an eballot system, in place for military and overseas voters, and it asked counties to use the same program for all voters in 2012. This made it possible for voters who had moved since the 2008 presidential election but had not updated their registration address to access their ballots.

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