Voting a Provisional Ballot can be confusing

By The West Virginia Record | Oct 4, 2007


CHARLESTON -- One of the issues that surfaces among voters and the media from time to time pertains to the use and voting of provisional ballots.

Many citizens do not realize that universal guidelines for provisional voting were mandated in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which resulted from the controversies surrounding the 2000 presidential election. Still, the HAVA rules did not end all questions or controversies, as demonstrated by problems that arose in Ohio during the 2004 election.

When citizens arrive at polling places to cast their vote, their names are checked against a book containing a list of all registered voters. Most of the time, the voter's name is found, the poll book indicates he has shown up to cast his vote, and the process operates as it should.

Occasionally, though, problems can arise. Most often, the problem revolves around a voter not being found to be registered, either because registration forms were never filled out, or a name change took place, or because the individual should be voting in another precinct. When this happens, voters are permitted to cast a "provisional" ballot, with election officials determining later during canvass whether to count the vote. (Citizens should know that upwards of 50 percent of provisional ballots are not counted after review by the ballot commissioners during canvass, because, if you vote in the wrong precinct, your vote generally will not be counted.)

Several suggestions have been offered to deal with the issue, and election officials are constantly on the lookout for ways to improve the voting process. Many observers have argued in recent years that even if voters cast their ballots at the wrong precinct, their votes should be counted. After all, especially with single-county, single-issue elections, why should a vote not be counted as long as it is cast by a qualified, registered voter?

A recent article in "Election Line," an online election watchdog Web site focused on the Kanawha County table games vote. Scott Novakowsi, a senior policy analyst at Demos, a non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization, was quoted as saying, "When you have an election on an issue that is not specific to the precinct, there is no reason an out-of-precinct ballot should not be counted."

Many election officials, though, support the precinct-specific requirement, noting that it cuts down on long lines and makes it easier to handle the job of voter verification. And definitely in partisan elections, where you live dictates which candidates you can vote for, which is as it should be: one voice, one vote for those who will represent you and your district.

As an advocate for the principle that every legal vote should count, I believe we must do more to err on the side of counting votes. I am constantly communicating with election officials and elected representatives from West Virginia and around the nation on ways to eliminate confusion and increase the percentage of votes that are cast and counted each Election Day.

In the end, proper registration and voting are the responsibility of both election officials and voters themselves. Election officials must be diligent in properly recording new registrations and changes in registrations, and notifying voters of changes in precincts or other issues. On the other hand, each citizen has a responsibility not only to register, but to follow up and make sure his or her registration or name change was properly recorded, and that he or she knows where their voting precinct is located.

In West Virginia, it is easy for voters to double check both their registration status and their polling place, either by calling our office (304-558-6000), or by logging onto our elections portal at, where they can search our user-friendly data base by entering their full name and date of birth to determine whether they are registered and the location and number of their precinct.

Voters who are offered a provisional ballot should always ask why. If the reason is because the voter's name is not on the registration book or the voter is in the wrong precinct, the poll worker should be asked to call the county clerk's office to determine the correct precinct, so the voter can go there and vote. And a voter should always contact the county clerk to determine when a provisional ballot will be considered and whether it was counted.

It just makes good sense, and makes for a better democracy, to make sure your vote is counted and your voice is heard at the ballot box.

Ireland is West Virginia's Secretary of State.

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