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Elections Officials Prepared For Provisional Ballot Count

The latest polls continue to predict a tight race between the Democratic President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney in Ohio. It’s possible the final tally of regular votes cast in person and by mail might not determine the election's outcome. In that scenario, provisional ballots could tip the scales in this important swing state. In a state with nearly 7,000,000 registered voters, it might seem that a few hundred-thousand provisional ballots added to the tally would be insignificant. But in Ohio, past presidential elections have been very close. Consider the 2000 election when George W. Bush beat Al Gore by some 165,000 votes. In 2004, Bush defeated John Kerry by less than 119,000. Provisional ballots weren't the deciding factors in those races. But in the 2008 Congressional race between Mary Jo Kilroy and Steve Stivers, provisional ballots determined the winner. "A provisional ballot really is a safeguard for the system," says Dana Walch, deputy director of the Franklin County Board of Elections. Walch says people are required to cast a provisional ballot most often because they have not kept certain information current with the county's board of elections.

What a provisional ballot allows us to do is for those voters that have not kept their records up to date - moved from another county or within Franklin County to a new address where we may not have them on file, what a provisional ballot does is to allow them to still cast a ballot.

Provisional ballots, though, are not counted until ten days after the election. The local board of elections must certify that the voter is indeed registered somewhere in Ohio, and that he or she has not voted at their old polling location or by absentee ballot. If the information provided by the voter is determined to be accurate and acceptable as required by Ohio law, it's placed with other approved provisional ballots that will be opened and tallied on November 17th. "The mere fact that we have to wait ten days isn't a crisis; isn't a problem; it's just the new normal," says Ned Foley, a professor at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Foley says that most provisional ballots are counted.

Historically Ohio ends up counting most of the provisional ballots that are cast - in some years it's 70 percent and as high as 80 percent in one year. So the majority end up being verified and count just like any other vote.

It's not likely, but if election night comes and goes with no clear winner provisional ballots could very well play the pivotal role. "We came close to this in 2004," Foley says. "Ohio was the key tipping state in 2004 and we had 150,000 provisional ballots that year. But on election night John Kerry was behind by about 120,000 and he couldn't make up that difference with only 150,000 provisional ballots to work with." So George W. Bush won a second term. But what if the margin between Bush and Kerry had been smaller?

If we take 2004 as a benchmark, imagine repeating the same number of provisional ballots, but a much closer margin and let's say that's 10,000 votes. At that point the race would be too close to call and you have to wait for the evaluation of provisional ballots and that does take ten days.

So if Ohio is once again the tipping state, and if the margin between the candidates is too close to call, Ohio's provisional ballots would play a major role in the outcome - though people across America would be kept waiting 10 days for the winner to be declared. Franklin County's Dana Walch says that there are certain misunderstandings about provisional ballots. Secretary of State Jon Husted describes provisional ballots this way:

These are 'second chance' ballots not 'second-class' ballots.

"The purpose of a provisional ballot is not to disenfranchise a voter but to say, 'Okay, there's some confusion here, at least record your preference,'" says the Moritz College of Law's Ned Foley. "And then we can take ten days and figure out what the answer is." And Foley says it's better to vote provisionally than not to vote at all. "If you have to vote a provisional ballot that's better than not having a ballot voted at all. If you leave a polling place and never cast a ballot your vote can never be counted. But at least a provisional ballot has the potential for being counted." Foley does say that by voting a regular ballot, you're better off. And he says the astute voter, if told to vote provisionally, should ask for what reason. The poll worker, Foley says, should be able to give an answer.