Of the 6 million Ohioans who voted in 2020, only 2.47 million voted on Election Day. The majority of voters, for the first time, voted by mail or voted early. It’s a good thing they did, if they wanted to avoid having to cast a provisional ballot. Despite 576,000 fewer people voting on Election Day last year as compared to 2016, the volume of raw provisional ballots stayed constant. All told, 154,675 Ohioans were asked to cast a provisional ballot and 25,000 of those ballots were ultimately rejected.
New analysis by Dr. Megan Gall and Dr. Kevin Stout at All Voting Is Local (AVL) reveals troubling disparities of provisional ballot use that relate to race, ethnicity, age and income: some voters are more likely to have their ballots counted than others. Ultimately, the findings indicate a remedy for these problems: adopting policies that increase the use of vote-by-mail.
Provisional ballots give people an opportunity to prove their eligibility to vote as a “last resort” for voters who encounter a problem that prevents them from casting a regular ballot. Voters who go to the wrong polling location, don’t appear in the poll book on Election Day or are flagged for a signature mismatch may need to cast a provisional ballot. Then, election officials work to resolve these issues and determine if the voter’s ballot will count.
But this report’s analysis reveals a disturbing pattern. Ohio has shown increased provisional ballot usage rates, increased rejection rates and decreased notice and cure rates over the last three elections. AVL’s analysis, and previous research, fit with a larger pattern nationwide where Black, brown, young and lower income communities cast a disproportionate share of provisional ballots. High rates of provisional ballot use — and rejection — not only raise questions about the health of the election system, but also reflect barriers that prevent historically disenfranchised voters from being able to cast a ballot that counts.
The provisional process often requires a voter to follow up in person with their elections supervisor at the county board of elections — creating a whole extra step in the voting process. That means that Black and brown voters, young voters and lower income voters shoulder a greater burden when casting their vote because it’s up to them to take the extra step to fix or “cure” their ballot so it counts.
It shouldn’t be this way. But Ohio lawmakers can fix this so that all voters, no matter their race, age or where they live, can cast a ballot that counts — by expanding vote by mail.
Two case studies included in the report cut to the heart of why voting by mail can help relieve this burden. Provisional and vote-by-mail data at the precinct level in Cuyahoga and Franklin Counties showed that greater absentee ballot usage reduced overall provisional ballot use.
For example, “a 10% growth in vote-by-mail in Cuyahoga County, approximately 64,000 voters, would result in around 2,650 fewer provisional ballots, a 15% reduction,” the report states. In Franklin County, the story is similar. “A 10% growth in [vote-by-mail], approximately 64,000 voters, would result in around 2,670 fewer provisional ballots, a 13% reduction.”
The evidence is clear: Election Day voting results in more provisional ballots. Voting by mail lowers the number of provisional ballots.
Further, Cuyahoga and Franklin Counties, like all counties in Ohio, each have only one dropbox to return ballots. Ohio must stop its senseless policy of having only one dropbox for ballots per county and further expand the benefits of being able to request a ballot by mail to all its citizens.
They shouldn’t stop there. The report recommends Ohio’s election officials:
- Invest in expanding early voting opportunities.
- Create a robust process for voters to easily and simply “cure” or fix their ballots that includes voter education and ballot alert systems.
- Create an infrastructure to support widespread vote-by-mail use across the state including electronic ballot applications.
- Enhance poll worker training on voting regulations to ensure appropriate provisional ballot use.
- Collect and publish data about why, under election law, a voter is asked to use a provisional ballot.
- Get more detailed in their data collection. County-level analyses are critical to understanding statewide trends but precinct level analyses help us understand the dynamics at play within cities and counties.
Ohio state and county officials should take this advice. Ohio voters deserve an election system that’s fair — no matter their race, ethnicity, age, income or how they chose to cast their ballot.
Alex Ault is All Voting is Local’s Policy Consultant.