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Election 2022 Questions: Unpacking provisional ballots

A page in the Buncombe County Election Official training manual highlights the provisional voting protocol.
Buncombe County Board of Elections
A page in the Buncombe County Election Official training manual highlights the provisional voting protocol.

BPR is answering listener queries about voting in this Fall’s election.  This week, a listener wanted to know about provisional ballots and when they are used.

If you show up at the polls and the election worker can’t find your name in the poll book – and you feel certain you have registered, you will be offered a provisional ballot.

A voter receives a provisional ballot when questions arise about:

  • The voter’s qualification to vote, 
  • The voter’s eligibility to vote in a given election, or 
  • The voter’s eligibility to vote a specific ballot style. 

Election officials hold provisional ballots aside as they conduct research about the voter’s eligibility. Based on the research, county board of elections members make final determinations about voter eligibility. Election results are not finalized until all provisional ballots that are eligible are counted. (Source: ncsbe.gov)

Buncombe County’s Director of Elections Services Corrine Duncan says provisional ballots are returned to the county board of elections where they are researched.

“So we'll look for any evidence that there was registration, um, a timely registration and that you're eligible for the election,” says Duncan. “And that just really safeguards the integrity. We make sure that only eligible people to vote, and that nobody loses the opportunity to.”

Provisional ballots are placed in a sealed envelope at the polls.  If a provisional application is approved, only then will the voter’s provisional ballot be removed from the sealed envelope and the ballot counted or, if applicable, partially counted. Ballots are partially counted if a provisional voter was not entitled to vote for all contests on the ballot, which might happen if a voter goes to the wrong polling site in their county.

If a provisional application is not approved, the ballot remains sealed in the provisional envelope. Each provisional voter will get a special PIN number they can use - to check the status of their ballot.

The best way to avoid having to fill out a provisional ballot is to check your voter registration status – including making sure your address is up to date – you can do that at the State Board of Elections website. During early voting – you can register and vote on the same day – and you can vote at any polling site in your county –. That’s not the case on election day – so be sure and check your status and your polling place location.

According to data from the North Carolina State Board of Elections, so far - more than 2,600 voters cast provisional ballots during early voting this year.

During the 2020 presidential election, more than 60,000 provisional ballots were cast in North Carolina. The most common reason a ballot was not counted was because the voter was not registered (69% of voters), followed by people voting in the wrong precinct (12%).

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.