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VERIFY: What are provisional ballots?

Here is why some voters are given a provisional ballot and how they can affect the final total of ballots that are counted.

There has been increased confusion over the process of vote-counting as the presidential race has remained too close to call. The tallies are close in some states, and the number of votes left to count sometimes seems unclear.

Why is that? One factor that can complicate quick vote-counting is provisional ballots. The VERIFY team explains what they are and how they affect the vote count.

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The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has an explanation of provisional ballots. Most states are required to offer provisional ballots by federal law, but each state has different laws regarding them.

Provisional ballots are given to a voter when there is some issue confirming their eligibility to vote at the polling place. Common reasons that a voter is given a provisional ballot are issues with the voter's registration; concerns the voter may have already voted; a voter is trying to vote in-person after requesting a mail-in ballot; or a voter may not have a required identification.

After a voter receives a provisional ballot, election officials are required to give the voter some way of finding out whether or not their ballot is ultimately counted. In many states, this is an online lookup.

These provisional ballots are kept separate from the rest of the ballots. This is because state officials must determine whether a voter is eligible to cast a vote. That also means these ballots will almost always be counted last.

States are supposed to make public the total number of provisional ballots cast in the state and then ultimately and transparently document the number of provisional ballots counted and the number that are considered invalid. For example, North Carolina revealed Thursday that there were just over 40,000 provisional ballots cast in the state. It's unlikely all of those 40,000 ballots will be counted in the end.

Each state determines a different timeline for when a decision must be made on provisional ballots' eligibility. The NCSL lists each state's timeline. Elections officials have a week or more in many states to count provisional ballots.

2018 report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission said that provisional ballots account for approximately 1.8% of all ballots cast in a typical presidential election. It said about 69% of those ballots were counted. However, it noted some states account for a higher percentage of provisional ballots than others. The commission said 75% of such ballots came from Arizona, Ohio, New York and California.

So while they make up a small portion of the total ballots, provisional ballots can matter in a close election. And combined with military ballots arriving from overseas and mail-in ballots submitted just before the deadline, they can make it so that a close race is impossible to call before they're counted.

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