Center for American Progress

The Racially Discriminatory Effects of Provisional Ballots

The Racially Discriminatory Effects of Provisional Ballots

In 16 states, voters in counties with a higher percentage of minorities cast provisional ballots at higher rates.

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idea light bulbIn the wake of the troubled and deeply flawed 2000 presidential election in which between 4 million and 6 million votes were not counted, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, to restore voters’ confidence in the electoral process. One of HAVA’s reforms was the establishment of the provisional ballot process, which was originally put in place as a fail-safe measure to ensure that voters who face issues when they arrive at the polls can still cast a ballot. Despite its best intentions, the process is not without serious problems. Of the more than 2.7 million provisional ballots that were cast in 2012, more than 30 percent were not fully counted or rejected all together. Moreover, according to this first-of-its-kind analysis, in 16 states, the use of provisional ballots is more frequent in counties with higher percentages of minority voters.

Beyond their propensity to not be counted, provisional ballots may serve as a proxy for breakdowns in the election process because they are issued when there is some type of problem precluding a normal ballot from being cast. While voter error may be the reason for the issuance of some provisional ballots, cumbersome voter registration procedures, restrictive voting laws, lack of voter education, poorly maintained voter registration lists, and mismanagement by election officials all contribute to voters casting provisional instead of regular ballots. This report, however, does not attempt to identify the institutional root causes of why provisional ballots are issued. Instead, it is a first-of-its-kind analysis that critically evaluates the issuance of provisional ballots in counties across all 50 states during the 2012 election with specific attention to whether minority populations were more affected by the use of provisional ballots.

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