What is a Provisional Ballot?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 September 2019
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A provisional ballot is a ballot which can be used by a voter if his or her eligibility to vote is called into question. By using a provisional ballot, the voter theoretically ensures that the vote will be counted if it is valid. Provisional ballots are supposed to ensure that every American who has the right to vote will be able to do so, although some voter rights organizations have expressed concern about the way in which provisional ballots are handled.

Provisional ballots, along with other reforms to the voting system, were mandated by federal law in the Help America Vote Act of 2002. This act was designed to streamline the voting system, preventing election irregularities and making it the election process easier for voters. Prior to the passage of this act, in many precincts, questioned voters were unable to vote, even if they later proved to be eligible.

There are a number of situations in which a voter may be asked to fill out a provisional ballot. Inability to provide identification is one such situation. Voters who have recently changed addresses or do not appear on the rolls of a precinct may be asked to cast provisional ballots, as will voters for whom ballots have already been recorded. Provisional ballots are also provided to voters when the name on the roll is inaccurate.


After filling out the voting section of a provisional ballot, the voter fills out and signs an affidavit on the back which provides more information about the voter and the situation in which the vote was cast. By law, voters must be able to find out if their ballots have been accepted by calling a hotline or visiting a website, and polling place workers must provide contact information which allows voters to do this.

If you are asked to cast a provisional ballot, you should keep the receipt for the ballot, along with the contact information which will allow you to check and see if your vote is counted. Voter rights organizations also encourage voters to report incidents in which they fill out provisional ballots to third party organizations which monitor elections. By amassing a large database, these organizations can figure out whether or not irregularities occurred.

Advocates of the provisional ballot system argue that a provisional ballot is better than no ballot at all, and they are, perhaps, right. However, critics of provisional balloting have argued that a suspicious number of swing states have high numbers of provisional ballots, and that many minorities fill out a disproportionate number of provisional ballots, suggesting that there may be some vote fixing going on. These suspicions have been compounded by long delays in the processing of provisional ballots; such ballots are sometimes not finalized and counted until months after the election, essentially disenfranchising the people who cast them.


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