A Failsafe for Voters? Cast and Rejected Provisional Ballots in North Carolina

Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(1) 65 –78
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919875816
For potential voters who have their eligibility questioned
at the polls, provisional ballots can serve as a failsafe
(Foley 2005). Since President George W. Bush signed
into law the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002,
individuals who turn out to vote—only to be informed by
poll workers that they are not on the voter rolls, are in the
incorrect precinct, or lack proper identification—have
had the option to cast a provisional ballot. Under HAVA,
a provisional ballot is deemed valid if a voter’s eligibility
is later confirmed by local elections officials.1 Although
HAVA is federal law, the rates of provisional ballots both
cast and rejected across elections vary significantly across
states and local jurisdictions (Hanmer and Herrnson
2014; Kimball and Baybeck 2013; Kimball, Kropf, and
Battles 2006; Merivaki and Smith 2016). According to
biennial data compiled by the U.S. Election Assistance
Commission (EAC), some states regularly report high
rates of provisional ballots cast and provisional ballots
rejected. While they pale in comparison to the total num-
ber of ballots cast in an election, provisional voting con-
stitutes a key indicator of a state’s election performance,
as “an unusually high number of provisional ballots
rejected likely is a symptom of an inefficient election pro-
cess” (Pew Center on the States 2009).
The study of provisional ballots—who casts them and
why—is important for several reasons. First, close elec-
tions may hang in the balance, awaiting these marginal
ballots to be tabulated by local election officials. Although
provisional ballots rarely change the outcome of statewide
or federal contests, they can be pivotal in close races,
especially in elections that go to a recount (Foley 2014). In
Georgia’s contentious gubernatorial race in November
2018, for instance, controversies over eligible voters being
denied access to voting resulted in intervention by a fed-
eral judge, who ordered all provisional ballots to be
reviewed, thus delaying the certification of the election
results by more than a week (Niesse 2018). In November
2017, when several states held legislative elections, the
vote tallies in numerous jurisdictions were settled only
after the provisional ballots were verified (Abernathy
2017; Tobias 2017; Troy 2017). In Virginia that year, pro-
visional ballots in a few close elections tipped the partisan
control of the state legislature (Carey 2017).
Second, the incidence of provisional ballots may raise
procedural concerns about a jurisdiction’s election
administration (Gerken 2009). For example, administra-
tive errors became pronounced in the 2004 Presidential
election due to the difficulties some states and localities
had in preparing and implementing HAVA’s provisions,
particularly regarding provisional ballots and out-of-date
statewide voter rolls (McGinn and Debbage 2015). Some
875816PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919875816Political Research QuarterlyMerivaki and Smith
1Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, USA
2University of Florida, Gainesville, USA
Corresponding Author:
Thessalia Merivaki, Mississippi State University, 456 Hardy Road,
105 Bowen Hall, Mississippi State, MS 39759, USA.
Email: lia.merivaki@pspa.msstate.edu
A Failsafe for Voters? Cast and Rejected
Provisional Ballots in North Carolina
Thessalia Merivaki1 and Daniel A. Smith2
Provisional ballots constitute a failsafe for voters who have their registration or voter identification questioned by poll
workers. Scholars have yet to examine who is more likely to cast a provisional ballot, and more importantly, why some
provisional ballots are rejected. We suggest that beyond individual-level factors, there are administrative reasons
why some prospective voters are more likely to be required to cast provisional ballots than others, and why some
provisional ballots are rejected. Drawing on county data collected by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC)
biennial Election Administration and Voting Surveys (EAVS) from 2012 to 2016, and individual records of provisional
ballots cast in the 2016 Presidential Election in North Carolina, we examine aggregate- and individual-level reasons to
explain who casts provisional ballots and why some are rejected. Our findings raise normative questions concerning
whether voters casting provisional ballots are treated equally under the law.
provisional ballots, election administration, HAVA, U.S. Election Assistance Commission, North Carolina

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