Uncounted Votes

A new report uncovers the racially discriminatory effects of provisional ballots.

New Report Uncovers The Racially Discriminatory Effects of Provisional Ballots

Leading up to the election, there’s been important attention paid to new voting laws like those in Texas and North Carolina that are erecting more barriers to vote and could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of eligible, and disproportionately non-white, voters. A new report released today looks at an election issue that generally gets far less attention, but could result in similar problems.

The Center for American Progress report, “Uncounted Votes: The Racially Discriminatory Effects of Provisional Ballots,” is a first-of-its-kind analysis of 2012 election data identifying states where the usage of provisional ballots directly correlated with communities of color and foreign language speaking populations. After looking at all 50 states, the reports identifies 16 states where there is a statistically significant positive relationship between provisional ballots cast and counties with higher minority populations.

What does this mean? It means that it in a good portion of the country during the 2012 election, minority communities were more likely to have to cast provisional ballots. Nearly 25 percent of the more than 2.7 million provisional ballots cast that year were outright rejected, meaning more than 500,000 voters did not have their voices heard. Rejections happen for many reasons, including cumbersome voter registration procedures, restrictive voting laws, poorly maintained voter lists, election office mismanagement, and voter error.

The use of provisional ballots often reflects other problems in the election administration process, though not always. In some case, like when Hurricane Sandy displaced voters in New York and New Jersey, provisional ballots can be used as a failsafe. However, in some situations, they appear to be a used in place of effective election administration. For instance, Philadelphia reported a large amount of provisional ballots cast in 2012 because of significant election administration errors—numerous polling locations did not have accurate polling books. And that disproportionately affected minority voters. Take a look at this comparison between Philadelphia County and Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), which have similar voting-age populations, but vastly different election performance outcomes with respect to provisional ballots:

What can be done to improve a system that in some cases appears to have racially discriminatory effects? Because registration issues are such a big part of why provisional ballots are issued in the first place, the biggest thing that states or the federal government can do is to modernize voter registration. That could mean making registration permanent, regardless of where voters move. It could mean doing what a number of states have already done: allow same-day and online registration, which would dramatically reduce the need for provisional ballots because voters would have immediate solutions to most issues. Online registration would also help cut down on administrative errors associated with the paper registration system and make updating records easier.

BOTTOM LINE: Elections need to be free, fair, and accessible for all eligible voters. When there is evidence, like CAP’s new report lays out, that they are not due to potentially discriminatory aspects of voting laws and election administration, then legal experts and policy makers must take action to reform the process and make sure all voices can be heard.

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