What is a provisional ballot, anyway?

George Takei tweet about provisional ballots

I don’t know what your Facebook and Twitter feeds have looked like for the past couple of days, but this tweet from George Takei has been all over mine. If you’re looking at this on a tiny screen or can’t read the print, it says “If you are turned away at the polls because your name is not on the register, don’t walk away. Say this: I REQUEST A PROVISIONAL BALLOT AS REQUIRED BY LAW. Don’t let them steal your vote.”

So you might be wondering, “What is a provisional ballot? Do I need one? Is this good advice?”. Well, wonder no more, my friends. Let’s talk about it.

What is a provisional ballot? It’s a ballot that somebody needs more information about in order to decide whether or not it ought to count. Provisional ballots are generally held aside from the general stack of completed ballots, and some election official has to come in and review them later.

You might vote on a provisional ballot if the poll workers can’t find you in the voter rolls. Or, if you live in a state (like KS and MO) where the law specifies what kind of ID you have to have in order to vote, and you don’t have an ID with you that’s on that list. Or, if you are registered to vote, but you’re supposed to vote in some polling place other than the one you’re at. Or, in Kansas, if the address on your ID doesn’t match the address in the registration system. Or, if there’s some possibility that you might have already voted advance or absentee and might be trying to vote again. Basically, if there’s any question about whether or not you’re really eligible to cast this particular vote, you can request or be given a provisional ballot.

Is that a good idea? Well, usually. It’s certainly better than just giving up and leaving the polls. I can’t tell you whether any particular provisional vote will actually be counted or not. That’s always going to be up to the folks running the election. But here are some things to think about:

  • If the reason you are voting provisionally is that the poll workers can’t find your registration, it’s possible that they’re not able to see the whole list of registered voters for some reason, and somebody with better data access at the election board or office will be able to validate your vote.
  • Even if you really have been removed from the rolls for some reason, properly or improperly (all states purge voters if the voter is inactive for a long enough period of time, and lots of states have opted to purge voters for other reasons this year), casting a provisional ballot can’t hurt. Your ballot creates a record. That record may become important if there is a legal challenge to the election process or results.
  • If the reason you are voting provisionally is that there’s some issue with your ID, and you have a valid form of identification somewhere else, what happens next depends on your state. In Missouri, you can come back to the poll with a valid ID and pull your ballot out of provisional status right there. In Kansas, you will need to contact the election office after the polls close. Ask a poll worker how and when to do that – it varies by county.
  • But: If the reason that you are voting provisionally is that you are in the wrong polling place, and you can get to the right polling place before the polls close – maybe don’t bother with the provisional vote and just go over to the other poll. That way you can be sure your vote will be counted. This varies a little by state. In Kansas, if you have moved in the 30 days before the election, you can still vote at your old polling place. Missouri wants you to change your address with the poll worker at your old polling place, and then go to the new one.

Okay, so I cast a provisional ballot – now what? In both Missouri and Kansas, you should get some sort of ballot stub or receipt for your provisional ballot. Hold on to that thing. In Kansas, you should also get instructions on how to follow up with the election office. If the poll worker helping you with your ballot doesn’t volunteer that information – ask them! In Missouri, once you’ve cast the provisional ballot, there’s not much you can do to change its fate immediately (unless you needed a valid ID and went back to the polls with one). You can, however, find out what happened to your ballot by calling the Secretary of State’s office at 866-868-3245, at least 14 days after the election.