John Eddy collects absentee ballots from Ohio voters.
John Eddy, 52, collects absentee ballots from voters as they drive past the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland, Ohio, on Oct. 16, 2020. ( Dustin Franz / AFP via Getty Images)
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Provisional ballots are meant to be a failsafe for voters, who are required to cast them when their eligibility is in question. But such ballots require extra steps to ensure they’re counted, increasing the odds they ultimately won’t be.

In Ohio, provisional ballot use is among the highest in the nation, according to data tracked by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and a new report finds trends there moving in the wrong direction. 

A slightly increased percentage of in-person voters in Ohio cast provisional ballots in 2020 compared to 2016, the report found. Counties with a higher percentage of Black and brown residents and young voters had elevated provisional ballot use, a finding in keeping with national trends, while it was lower in counties with higher median incomes. 

The report found 4.05% of in-person Ohio voters used provisional ballots, compared to 3.53% in 2016, a year when Ohio was one of four states that together accounted for 75% of such ballots issued. The total number cast fell by less than 300 in 2020, even though far fewer people voted in person because of the pandemic. 

“The usage is going up, rejections are going up, cure rates are going down,” said Megan Gall, who co-authored the report and is the national data director for All Voting is Local. “We know that that’s hitting certain groups more than others.”

Case studies of two of the state’s largest counties, Cuyahoga and Franklin, both of which have many voters of color, produced a promising finding: Increased use of absentee ballots there reduced the number of people who had to vote provisionally.  

Ohio is the latest state where Republican lawmakers are planning to propose legislation that would overhaul election laws. Legislators around the country have filed hundreds of bills to restrict voter access, according to a March analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Election experts and courts say the 2020 election was fair and there is no evidence to support months of conspiracy theories alleging fraud. Nonetheless, proponents of such bills say they are responding to a perceived need to make elections more secure. 

The Ohio draft bill is not yet public. But voting rights advocates have voiced concern about potential provisions that could reduce access to absentee ballots. For example, the Associated Press and Cleveland Plain Dealer report the bill is expected to decrease the number of days drop boxes will be available. The bill is also likely to include some proposals voter advocates favor, such as an absentee ballot request portal to make the process less cumbersome. 

The report’s findings on provisional ballot use underline the need to expand access to absentee ballots and drop boxes, not ratchet it back, said Kayla Griffin, the Ohio state director for All Voting is Local, a project of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Leadership Conference Education Fund.

Griffin said she’s concerned about any proposal that forces people to vote in person, given the disparities in which voters are asked to use provisional ballots. “One of the things I think is super important for us to understand is that if we start making people vote in one particular manner, it will disenfranchise people,” she said.

Based on discussions about the draft bill, Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Republican Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, issued a statement praising the state House for “work to create a modernized voter registration system and a long-overdue, secure online absentee ballot request system.”  

Federal law requires most states to offer provisional ballots, but states vary in how they manage them. Under Ohio law, voters who can’t provide acceptable proof of identity at the polls must appear in person at the local board of elections to do so within seven days of Election Day.

More provisional ballot use tends to mean longer lines and higher costs, too.

The All Voting is Local report found that provisional ballot rejections didn’t show the same demographic disparities as their usage, a sign, Gall said, that the process to cure them is working fairly. She praised local election officials for their efforts to ensure ballots are validated.

While Ohio tracks the reasons why a provisional ballot is rejected — most in 2020 were because the voter wasn’t registered, according to data from the Ohio secretary of state’s office — it does not track why a voter is directed to cast one in the first place. That’s data the report said is needed to better understand the disparities. 

Kathleen Valdez, a Cuyahoga County poll worker, said in one case, a voter said he was registered but was directed to use a provisional ballot after a poll worker couldn’t find his name. The voter is Latino and has two last names, which is common. Valdez said she found him when she did a broader search. “I’m not sure how many times this happened” and voters were directed to use provisional ballots, she told reporters on a press call connected to the report’s release.

With more information like this, election officials could improve poll worker training and ensure they only make people vote provisionally when necessary. It could also help shape voter education campaigns so more people meet eligibility verification requirements. 

For example, said Jen Miller, director of the Ohio League of Women Voters, some voters last year might have requested mail ballots, then decided to vote in person. Poll workers would have asked them to cast a provisional ballot to ensure only one vote was counted. 

Automatic voter registration could also help, Miller said. But she’s waiting to see the language in the bill.


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Carrie Levine

Carrie Levine joined the Center for Public Integrity in October 2014 as a federal politics reporter investigating...