Editor’s note: This story was produced through a partnership between the INDY and The 9th Street Journal, which is published by journalism students at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.
When one of Gunther Peck’s students told him that she had cast a provisional ballot in the 2016 election, he immediately worried.
“I was like, ‘uh oh,’ and then I checked it out afterwards,” said the Duke history professor and voting rights activist. His search confirmed his fears. “She voted, and she had no voting history.”
Her provisional ballot was never accepted.
Like Peck’s student, 1,084 Durhamites cast ballots that did not count in 2016, according to the Durham County Board of Elections. Some may still be under the impression that they participated in the election four years ago.
“The worst thing is, a lot of people don’t even realize their vote didn’t count,” Peck said. “The pernicious part of it is that you’d have to check your voter history after the fact to see that your vote didn’t count.”
Provisional ballots are cast when a poll worker is unable to verify a voter’s eligibility when they check in at a polling place. It’s like an entrance to a party where it’s unclear whether or not you are on the guest list. Except in this case, the party is an election and getting in doesn’t mean your vote counts. Provisional ballots are held aside until county election officials investigate to determine whether or not the people who cast them are eligible to vote.
Provisionals are more likely to be cast on Election Day, according to Patrick Gannon, a North Carolina State Board of Elections spokesperson. In the early in-person voting period, voters are able to register and cast a ballot on the same day. This process is called one-stop voting.
However, on Election Day, if a voter is not registered with their name in the county poll book, a directory that tracks registered voters, they are presented with a provisional ballot.
At the North Carolina Central University polling site, only 26 of the 91 provisional ballots cast in 2016 were counted in whole or in part — overall, less than 30%.
Statewide, over 90% of provisional ballots cast in 2016 were counted in whole or in part.
“It’s absurd,” Peck said. “People waited hours to cast those provisional ballots. The wait time in 2016 was four and a half hours because everybody was casting provisional ballots. The line was melting.”
He attributed the “horrific” throw rate to a “perfect storm” — a partisan fight over counting students’ provisionals, lower voter enthusiasm leading to last-minute decisions to vote, poll workers not informing voters to vote at their assigned precinct, and students being confused about how to register and where to vote.
N.C. Central has an early vote site that also serves as an Election Day precinct. All students can vote early there, but only on-campus residents may vote there on Election Day — a complex distinction that may have driven up the rate at which provisional ballots were cast and thrown out.
Reasons for Provisional Voting
The North Carolina State Board of Elections gives a provisional ballot when a voter has no record of registration. Voters may also receive a provisional ballot if they do not have an acceptable form of ID, don’t have a recognized address, are at the incorrect voting precinct, or have already voted according to records.
If a voter’s registration is removed from the county poll book, they are also presented with a provisional ballot. A voter’s registration can be canceled if they moved within the state, were convicted of a felony or were accidentally removed when lists were updated, among other reasons.
Additionally, if the voting hours for a precinct are extended by the state board on Election Day, then all voters who cast a ballot during the extended hours must vote provisionally. This happened at eight Durham precincts in 2016, after technological issues delayed the voting process.
Provisional ballots disproportionately affect younger and poorer voters, Peck said, because they are more likely to move in between elections.
“If your parents have lived at the same address for 40 years, they’re never going to be asked to vote provisionally, because they’re fixed,” he said.
Although the throwing problem is particularly acute at N.C. Central, it is not isolated to the university. Young voters in general are more likely to cast provisional ballots, which exposes their vote to risk of rejection.
“Most people have never even heard of provisional ballots, so they don’t know the hazard or the danger in casting one,” Peck said.
Reviewing Provisional Ballots
When a voter casts their provisional votes, their ballot is separated from others and marked for later review. This review process happens after the election, when the county board meets to accept or reject all provisional ballots cast.
In the review process, the board does research to validate unknown addresses, verify voters’ identities and find any indication that voters have attempted to register prior to Election Day. As officials search through the records of registration locations, such as the DMV, processing errors that prevented voters from entering the poll book could be unveiled, according to Gannon. Those unsaved by a mistake-proving document are less lucky.
“If it’s obvious that the person did not make any attempt to register, and then cast a provisional on Election Day, that ballot would not be counted,” he said.
In 2016, the Durham County Board of Elections approved 518 provisional ballots after their research confirmed that the voters were registered and eligible.
In some cases though, provisional ballots are partially counted. This happens when a voter’s registration is eligible, but they voted outside of their designated precinct. In those cases, the voter’s ballot is counted for the races they are eligible to participate in, which may only include national and statewide races.
“If the voter lives in Congressional district 13 and voted in Congressional district 4, the vote for Congress would not count,” the Durham County Board of Elections explained in its provisional ballot press release for the 2016 election.
During the 2016 election, 324 provisional ballots were partially accepted in Durham County. In total, just over half of the provisional ballots cast in Durham were either completely or partially counted.
Peck is more optimistic about this year’s provisional ballots. The state elections board has made an active effort to make sure as many ballots as possible are counted, he said. At N.C. Central, he added, administrators and students have encouraged the campus community to vote early, when voters have time to fix issues that may arise with their registration.
“It’s a combination of administrative problems, lack of knowledge, and also a system where you don’t know until after the fact, which is not deliberate voter suppression, but it is suppressing votes,” Peck said.