Fact Check

Can Voters Ask for Provisional Ballots If They Are Turned Away at Polls?

The vast majority of voters are entitled by federal law to demand a provisional ballot if they encounter problems at the ballot box.

Published Oct 17, 2018

If voters are turned away from polls on election day, they can ask for a provisional ballot.

Thousands of American citizens have been purged from voting registries or will face new obstacles to voting in several states, a situation which has drawn attention to a fail safe mechanism put in place by federal law to help ensure all eligible voters are counted: provisional ballots.

In response to reports that states (including Indiana, Georgia, and North Dakota) had thrown up roadblocks to potential voters in the lead-up to the 6 November 2018 midterm elections, social media users sought to spread awareness to their fellow Americans about the back-up plan for those who believed themselves to be registered and eligible to vote but were turned away at the polls nevertheless: "Give me a provisional ballot with a receipt as required by law when requested":

In most states, provisional ballots are for voters who believe they are registered but their registration can't be found. States that have same-day voter registration (SDR) have little need for them while states that have voter identification laws such as Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Virginia use them for those who go to the polls but don't have the proper ID on hand. In those cases the voter has a certain amount of time to present a local election official with the required identification in order for the provisional ballot to be counted.

Most states don't have same-day registration, and federal law requires election officials provide voters who do not appear on registries or whose eligibility has been challenged by officials at the polls to be given provisional ballots, according to Section 302 of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). "The deal with the provisional ballots is that so long as you believe yourself to be registered, you have the right to a provisional ballot. Polling workers are supposed to offer this to you," said Allegra Chapman, senior counsel and director of voting and elections for the government accountability organization Common Cause.

If voters must use provisional ballots, Chapman added that they absolutely should request receipts if they aren't automatically offered. The provisional ballot receipts provide voters the necessary information to follow up and find out if their votes were counted. Common Cause officials urge voters who encounter any problems on election day to call 866-OUR-VOTE to speak to trained volunteers or text the words "election protection" to 97779 for voting assistance.

In SDR states like Wisconsin, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa and Idaho, voters can register on the spot. Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming and Washington, D.C. also have same-day voter registration. North Dakota doesn't have voter registration but it does have voter identification laws.

"Wisconsin voters who are not on the poll list can register on election day. In Wisconsin, provisional ballots are used primarily for voters who do not have an acceptable photo identification," said Reid Magney, public information officer for the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Voters in Wisconsin have until 4 p.m. the Friday after the election to present their local election official with required identification in order for their vote to be counted.

North Dakota voters without required identification who cast provisional ballots must present an acceptable form of identification to local election officials within six days in order for their votes to be counted. Sen. Heidi Hietkamp also introduced a bill that would, among other things, enable voting precincts to treat the state's large minority Native American residents' tribal ID cards like state and local-issued forms of identification for purposes of voting.

Provisional ballot voting has gotten wide attention because of highly-publicized cases in which state officials have either purged voter roles and/or enacted legislation that critics fear will disenfranchise minority communities.

In Georgia, a 2017 "exact match" law allowed the registration of voters to be suspended and then cancelled if the information on their government-issued identification varied even slightly from the information on their voter registration forms. According to court documents, "Under this 'exact match' protocol, the transposition of a single letter or number, deletion or addition of a hyphen or apostrophe, the accidental entry of an extra character or space, and the use of a familiar name like “Tom” instead of 'Thomas' will cause a no match result." And the burden of rectifying the issue falls on voters.

Georgia secretary of state and gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp is currently being sued by a coalition of civil rights groups who claim the "exact match" law has hampered the registration of 51,111 voters, 80.15% of whom are black, Latino, or Asian, and some critics have called on Kemp to resign.

Also in 2017, Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson dropped roughly half a million entries from voter registries in what she called an effort to clean up an outdated list. In June 2018, a federal court blocked the state from implementing a 2017 law that would have allowed election officials to cancel registrations without notice if voters' names appeared on an interstate database meant to flag potential double voting.

The database, Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck, has been criticized as being unreliable, while the court ruled the Indiana law violated federal law. Indiana officials have been accused of violating that court order and did not respond to our questions about it.

In North Dakota, the U.S. Supreme Court on 9 October 2018 let stand a state law requiring voters to present identification listing their residential addresses. Because many among the state's large Native American minority use post office (P.O.) boxes and not street addresses on reservations, the Supreme Court decision that allowing the voter ID requirements to remain in place through the November 2018 election has caused many to fear that tribal members will be collectively disenfranchised on election day.

According to the North Dakota Secretary of State's office, voters whose identifications don't include their residential address can bring the following supplemental documents to the polls if they show a residential address: A current utility bill; a current bank statement; a check issued by a federal, state, local, or tribal government (including those issued by BIA for a tribe located in North Dakota, any other tribal agency or entity, or any other document that sets forth the tribal member’s name, date of birth, and current North Dakota residential address); a paycheck; or a document issued by a federal, state, local, or tribal government (including those issued by BIA for a tribe located in North Dakota, any other tribal agency or entity, or any other document that sets forth the tribal member’s name, date of birth, and current North Dakota residential address).


Timm, Jane C.  "Voter Purge Frenzy After Federal Protections Lifted, New Report Says."     NBC News.   20 July 2018.

Brater, Jonathan et al.   "Purges: A Growing Threat to the Right to Vote."     Brennan Center for Justice.   20 July 2018.

Harmon, Leon.   "Keeping Jim Crow Alive in Georgia with ‘Exact Match.'"     Who What Why.   11 October 2018.

Carden, Dan.   "Indiana Cancels Nearly Half a Million Voter Registrations."     The Times of Northwest Indiana.   18 April 2018.

Domonoske, Camila.   "Many Native IDs Won't Be Accepted at North Dakota Polling Places."     NPR.   13 October 2018.

Bethania Palma is a journalist from the Los Angeles area who has been working in the news industry since 2006.

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