Why are some ballots “provisional”?

By: Sutton Stokes

As we reported here, vote totals in the 2017 Elkins Municipal Election changed slightly on Monday as a result of the Elkins council’s canvass of the election.This was because one of the purposes of a canvass is to consider whether to accept provisional ballots.

Why are some ballots marked provisional?

There are various reasons why a ballot might be classified as provisional, but the most common is when it is cast by someone whose name is not listed on the voter registration record book that the county clerk has provided for the given ward.

There are legitimate reasons why a voter’s registration record might not be found in the poll book of the ward where they wish to vote. One reason would be if the voter has moved from one ward to another and has not yet updated his or her voter registration record, as was the case with one of the provisional ballots that turned out to contain a vote for Fifth Ward incumbent David Parker. State code requires that such votes be accepted.

Another reason might be a mistake in county records as to which ward a given address lies in, as was the case for another provisional Fifth Ward ballot that turned out to contain a Parker vote. State code also requires that these votes be accepted.

Grounds for rejection of provisional ballots include voters who claim to have moved from outside the city but have not yet updated their registration record or who have marked more than one candidate for the same office (an “over-vote”). The other three provisional Fifth Ward ballots fell into these categories; the challenges against them were not removed; and they remained sealed in their envelopes.

That last point is important: the canvassing board—Elkins council, in this case—must decide whether to “remove the challenge” against a given provisional ballot (i.e., whether to accept the vote) before that ballot’s sealed envelope may be opened. In other words, they must make their decision entirely based on the circumstances, before they know which way the voter voted. This was the practice followed at Monday’s canvass, with ballots being opened and tallied, if at all, only after council took a voice vote as to whether they should be accepted. As far as I know, the unopened, still “challenged” provisional ballots would only ever be opened by a court order.

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