Racially discriminatory effects of provisional ballots detailed in report

The Center for American Progress has taken a looks at the potential racially discriminatory effects of provisional voting.

A report issued this week analyzes county-level data from the 2012 midterm elections and specifically investigates the relationship between the use of provisional ballots and the racial composition of voting populations.

“In 2012, there were 2.7 million provisional ballots filed in the U.S., and nearly a third of those were not counted,” said Michele L. Jawando, vice president of legal progress, in a press call.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey are two of 16 states that have statistically significant correlations between the allocation of provisional ballots and concentration of minority voters.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Of the provisional ballots cast in Pennsylvania in 2012,  41.3 percent were rejected. According to the report, the main reasons for rejection were that the voter was not registered in state (74.3 percent); voter registered but in wrong jurisdiction or precinct (22.1 percent); and incomplete or illegible envelope or ballot (3.2 percent).

The 2000 presidential election set the stage for provisional voting. This election was infamously plagued with voter registration issues and and estimated 4 million to 6 million votes were lost. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights also discovered that minority voters were more likely to lose their vote.

Congress responded to the public outrage by passing the Help America Vote Act, and one of its proposed remedies was provisional voting.

A provisional ballot can be issued when a voter faces a registration issue on election day. Types of typical registration issues include the voter arriving at the wrong polling place, not having the proper ID, or not finding their name in the voter rolls.

“While the intent was for provisional ballots to act as a fail-safe measure for voters — which is better than denying voters the ability to cast any ballot — the use of provisional ballots has led to mixed results in practice,” states the report.

In addition to concluding that provisional voting could have discriminatory effects, the report states that the high use of provisional ballots suggests that US election administration is still lacking.

“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,” the report continues.

Jawando is worried that, in addition to the increase in voter registration laws, the provisional ballots will continue the trend of disproportionate disenfranchisement of minority voters.

“We want election officials to see that there may be a troubling trend in their states, but recognize there are things they can do to correct that,” she said.

Proposed solutions include establishing same-day registration and online registration, or expanding early voting.

“We need to make sure that any law that prevents people from entering a poling place, or when they get there, having their vote cast and counted, is problematic and we all should do better,” said Jawando.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal