An Alabama voter applies for an absentee ballot but for one reason or another never sends it in.
When that voter arrives at their precinct to vote in person on election day, they won’t be allowed to cast a regular ballot. Their name is flagged on the voter list showing they applied to vote absentee.
But they won’t be turned away. They can vote a provisional ballot. Provisional ballots go into a separate, sealed box and are not tabulated on election day. They will count if the county board of registrars determines they are legitimate in the days immediately following the election.
“It is in order to preserve the ability of the voter to have their voice heard and their vote counted if there’s a question about the authenticity, the security, the transparency of the vote,” Secretary of State John Merrill said. “And that enables to voter to still participate even though the circumstances are such that it might be difficult to have their voice heard if they didn’t meet all the standards at first.”
State law lists the reasons that a voter is required to cast a provisional ballot.
Jefferson County Board of Registrars Chair Barry Stephenson said the most common is the example described above -- a voter applied for an absentee ballot but did not send it in. Voters can cast a provisional ballot if they’re unsure of the status of their absentee ballot.
Other common reasons: The voter’s name is not on the voter list at the precinct where they try to vote; or the voter shows up without a photo ID.
Stephenson said a common reason that a voter’s name is not listed is because the voter has moved and not updated their registration information. He said people sometimes wrongly assume that because they filed a change of address with the U.S. Postal Service, their voter registration was also updated.
The provisional ballot process can resolve that problem for the immediate circumstances and correct the voter’s address for future elections.
“You moved into a different area, and you know all your neighbors are voting at the community center down the street,” Stephenson said. “You go there but you never changed your address. You can vote provisionally there. And then we get the information back and we update your address to your precinct boundaries.”
As for the photo ID problem, Stephenson said that most often happens late on election day, when a voter forgot their ID and doesn’t have time to retrieve it and vote before the polls close.
In those cases, they can vote provisionally. They have until the following Friday at 5 p.m. to take their ID to their board of registrars and make sure their provisional vote will count.
How does the board of registrars determine which provisional ballots should count?
Stephenson said the provisional voter and poll worker fill out an information sheet separate from the provisional ballot. The sheet gives the voter’s name, address, date of birth, and the reason for the provisional vote.
The provisional vote information sheets are collected separately from the provisional ballots, which go into the sealed box. The sealed box of ballots goes to the sheriff’s office after the polls close. The information sheets go to the board of registrars on Wednesday morning. The board uses those to investigate whether the votes should count.
Stephenson further described the process in Jefferson County.
When the board finishes its review of the provisional ballot information sheets, he notifies the sheriff of the precincts that had provisional ballots that are due to be counted.
On Tuesday one week after the election, this year on Nov. 10, the provisional ballot boxes from those precincts are delivered to the county probate office, where the valid provisional ballots are officially tabulated by the county’s election commission, which includes the probate judge, circuit clerk and sheriff or representative of the sheriff’s office.
Voters can learn the status of their provisional ballots by checking the voter registration portal on the secretary of state’s website.
Stephenson said Jefferson County handles about 400 to 500 provisional ballots during a general election with the governor’s race. For the 2016 presidential election, he said there were about 800.
He’s expecting more this time because of the special rules allowing everyone to vote absentee because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Because of the absentee explosion, we’ll probably go well past 1,000 this time,” Stephenson said.