How to Make Sure Your Provisional Ballot Counts
Seventy percent of Americans think high voter turnout is good for our democracy. But that 70% doesn’t include many Republican politicians. Unless you’re old enough to remember the civil rights movement, there are more barriers to voting today than at any point in your lifetime. Nonwhite, lower-income, and young voters in particular have found their voting rights in the crosshairs. And we have the party of Donald Trump — and more important, of Mitch McConnell — to thank.
That doesn’t mean voting doesn’t matter. Quite the opposite: If “Team Mitch” targets your right to vote, that’s precisely because they’re scared you’ll use it. In fact, some politicians are so afraid of their own voters that they’re not just trying to keep you from participating. They’re trying to keep you from participating without you realizing it.
For my new book Democracy in One Book or Less: How It Works, Why It Doesn’t, and Why Fixing It Is Easier Than You Think, I talked to Marc Elias, one of the country’s top lawyers fighting for voting rights. Is there a chance, I asked him, that someone reading a book on protecting democracy had their vote discarded and didn’t know it? He didn’t hesitate.
But the good news is this: With a little bit of knowledge, you can still make sure your vote counts this November. Here are a few of the sneakiest ways Mitch McConnell and friends are trying to undermine your right to vote — and how you can make sure they don’t succeed.
Don’t just register. Check your registration.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the “voter purge.” In case you’re unfamiliar, a purge is a registration drive but in reverse. The former adds people to a list of eligible voters. The latter takes that list and combs through it, hoping (in theory, anyway) to remove ineligible voters from the rolls. The other important difference between a purge and a drive is that in America, getting voters signed up is the responsibility of civic-minded volunteers while kicking them off is done at taxpayer expense.
In theory, voter purges remove deceased or relocated voters from the rolls. In practice, they’ve long been used as an excuse to shrink the electorate, often as a tool of white supremacists. In 1959, for example, the White Citizens’ Council of Washington Parish, Louisiana, conducted what it claimed was a routine cleanup of voter lists. As it happened, 85% of Black voters were kicked off the rolls compared to just 0.07% of whites.
But the modern voter purge began in Florida during the 2000 elections, when about 12,000 eligible, registered voters were taken off the rolls, about half of them African American. (Al Gore, as you may recall, lost that election by just 537 votes.) And in recent years, purges have dwarfed Florida’s in size and aggressiveness. Between the 2014 and 2016 elections, for example, 16 million Americans were taken off the rolls. One recent study from Ohio found that more than one in six voters caught up in a recent purge were on the purge list by mistake. If Ohio’s rates are consistent nationwide, more than 2.7 million eligible voters were taken off the rolls in a single two-year period.
That’s why these days, registering to vote is not enough. Before your state’s registration deadline, double-check your registration (I recommend using Vote.Org). States are supposed to tell you if they take your name off the list, but it won’t surprise you to learn they often fail to. If it turns out you’ve been de-registered, sign up at your current address as quickly as possible.
Here, a quick confession: I literally wrote a book called Democracy, and when I checked my own registration, it wasn’t updated with my new address. Double-checking is worth it. Trust me.
Be on the lookout for “provisional ballots.”
Most Americans purged from voter rolls over the past decade had no idea they wouldn’t be voting. They showed up at the polls. If the state required ID, they presented it, expecting to find their names on the list. And when their names couldn’t be found, they were handed something called a “provisional ballot.”
Most people who fill out provisional ballots don’t realize they must also “cure” them. They think they’ve cast meaningful votes when in fact they did nothing of the kind.
Provisional ballots are not inherently a bad idea. Imagine you brought your student ID to the polling place instead of your driver’s license, say, or your name was improperly left off the voter rolls. Provisional ballots are supposed to allow you to cast your vote anyway. Poll workers hand you a special piece of paper. You fill it out in the normal way. After the election, you have a few days to “cure” your ballot by providing proof of eligibility. If your ballot is cured, your vote counts.
The problem is that most Americans have no idea how this system works. In fact, neither do most poll workers, which means that most people who fill out provisional ballots don’t realize they must also cure them. They think they’ve cast meaningful votes when in fact they did nothing of the kind.
Election lawyer Marc Elias calls provisional ballots “placebo ballots.” You still feel good about voting. You still get a sticker. But you didn’t really participate in our democratic process. (The exception is California. I won’t go into the specifics of its election laws, but California uses provisional ballots differently, and most of them count, so if you live there, don’t be afraid to fill one out.)
“The problem,” says Elias, “is Republicans have weaponized provisional ballots to basically be, ‘We give all these people provisional ballots, we don’t tell them how to cure their ballot, then they don’t count, and they never know.’”
Beware of signature matching.
Odds are you haven’t heard of this one, but it keeps Elias up at night — especially with more Americans voting by mail because of Covid-19.
The way signature matching works is as follows: If you send in your ballot by mail, a voting official checks your signature against the signature on file from your voter registration application. If the official decides the two signatures don’t match, your vote doesn’t count.
Tens of thousands of votes are being discarded each election, without voters’ knowledge, because some random poll worker decides the signatures aren’t identical.
Signature matching is terrible for many reasons, beginning with the fact that lots of people don’t have consistent signatures. I can vouch for this personally. For the last several years, part of my job has involved signing books, and I promise you no two versions of my name are alike. Older people, who grew up writing cursive, tend to write their name the same way over and over. But younger voters — and many of those for whom English is a second language — do not.
Also, who’s to judge if a signature matches? Elias points out that even in court, a trained forensic investigator would never be allowed to compare handwriting using just two signatures. In fact, it would be malpractice to try. Even the godfather of modern voter purges, Republican lawyer Hans von Spakovsky, once called signature matching “a highly trained skill that cannot be taught in a matter of hours to the average poll worker.”
But that was when signature matching was being used in person, as an alternative to voter ID. Now it’s being used as a supplement to voter ID, a way of destroying votes after they’ve already been cast.
Which brings us to the final, and most dangerous, problem with comparing registration forms to ballots: No one ever tells you when your ballot doesn’t count. Already, tens of thousands of votes are being discarded each election, without voters’ knowledge, because some random poll worker decides the signatures aren’t identical. If more states adopt signature matching laws, expect that number to grow.
So what can you do about signature matching? First, figure out whether your state has it and what the rules are. In Colorado, for example, the standard is “substantial match” rather than “exact match,” so the default is to count votes rather than discard them. Here’s a handy list — nearly every state does this a different way, so you need to know how your local laws work. Just as important, you need to know how to confirm that your ballot counted. Many states post the names of voters who were able to cast their ballots, but it’s up to you to check that list and correct any problems if they arise. In other words, you have the tools to guarantee your mail-in ballot counts — you just have to know what they are and how to use them.
Your vote is protected. Don’t stop there.
In the words of my old boss Barack Obama, let’s be clear: Most ballots still count, and if someone tries to tell you voting doesn’t matter, tell them to get lost (and then go find them and drag them to the polls). But if you’re reading this, you’re the kind of person who’s willing to go the extra step to make sure everyone can vote. And in the democracy that Mitch McConnell has created, that means you have an extra set of responsibilities.
Don’t just make sure your own ballot counts. Share this information with friends and make sure they aren’t winding up on purge lists, casting “placebo ballots,” or running afoul of ridiculous signature matching laws.
Bringing down the barriers to voting is probably easier than you think: Your state can create automatic voter registration, expand early voting, ban outrageous purges, and more. So can Congress and the president.
Don’t just vote for president and Congress — vote in the local races for city council, mayor, state secretary of state, and state legislature, the offices that largely determine how well or poorly our elections are run.
Finally, reach out to your elected officials, regardless of their party, and demand they start fixing our democracy. Yeah, Mitch probably won’t return your call. But most politicians will — if making it easier to vote becomes a winning issue, they’ll do it faster than you can say “with an eye toward reelection.” Bringing down the barriers to voting is probably easier than you think: Your state can create automatic voter registration, expand early voting, ban outrageous purges, and more. So can Congress and the president.
Yes, voting now is harder than it was 20 years ago. But the real story of voting in America isn’t that it’s more difficult to cast a ballot — it’s that tens millions of us are casting their ballots anyway, defying the politicians who have targeted their votes. There’s something fundamentally American about doing whatever it takes to exercise our democratic rights. And there’s nothing more quintessentially American than rebuilding our democracy so that we don’t have to.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the percentage of Americans who believe high voter turnout is good for our democracy. It is 70%.