Monitor Provisional & Absentee Ballot Processing

November 5, 2009
Emily Levy


HAVA, the "Help America Vote Act of 2002," establishes the requirement that states provide provisional ballots for those voters whose eligibility to vote cannot be determined at the time of voting. Provisional ballots are not counted on election night, but must first go through a qualification process to determine whether or not the voter was eligible 1) to vote at all, and 2) to vote in all races on the ballot that was cast. Even where the ballots are counted secretly inside electronic voting machines, the process of qualifying the ballots is one that is observable. Observing this process can increase the chances that it is conducted fairly, in part by providing a deterrent to biased decision-making.

After voting on a provisional ballot, the voter places her or his ballot into a provisional ballot envelope (sample) and writes specific identifying information on the outside of the envelope. After the election, the information on the outside of the envelope is used to determine whether or not the voter's vote should be counted. The ballots that will be counted are then removed from the envelopes, separated from the envelopes (which contain the voters' names, addresses, etc.) and counted.


Tips for observing the processes of qualifying provisional ballots

and of counting provisional and absentee ballots




  1. Find out when and where provisional and absentee ballots will be counted. Be sure to ask when the process of determining eligibility for provisional ballots will be conducted.
  2. Find out whether there is any procedure you must follow in order to observe the process. Make it clear that you intend to observe and that you will need to be close enough to see the process and the ballots clearly and to hear what is being said.
  3. Try to find out approximately how long the process will take, and gather enough volunteers to cover whatever shifts you'll need. The process may take several days. If your team can't cover all of the hours, try to cover the beginning of the qualification process, somewhat random times throughout the remainder of the qualification process, and the counting process. If you can have two volunteers there, we recommend it.
  4. Before the counting begins, gather all the information you can about how the provisional ballots in your county or state are required to be handled. Here is an example from St. Louis, Missouri of the process for determining eligibility. Here is an example from Louisiana of the guidelines for handling provisional ballots.  Here is an example from New Mexico. This example from Arkansas includes images of the provisional ballot envelope.
  5. Do your best to determine in advance whether or not you will be allowed to tape record, photograph, or videotape the process. It may be that you will be able to videotape the conversation but not the ballots or envelopes themselves.



Bring with you a note pad and a few pens, any photographic or recording equipment you're permitted to have, and water and snacks if you plan to be there for a long time. Also bring copies of the laws, regulations or procedures you have found that apply to the process you'll be observing. You may also want to bring binoculars, and phone numbers of local media or local voting rights/election integrity groups who you'd want to contact if you observe problems.


Keep any agreements you have made with the elections office about when and where you will be and how you will conduct yourself. (Make only agreements that you intend to keep!)

Remember that you're there to perform a very important civic duty, not to catch people in wrongdoing. Most election officials and election workers are committed, diligent, and honest people who truly care about fair elections, which is why they have those jobs.

Try to get the names and affiliations of the people working on the process. Are they workers from the elections office? Are they representatives of political parties? If there are other observers there, find out their names and affiliations as well.


What to look and listen for:

-Do the instructions given to the workers match your understanding of what the process should be?

-Are the workers following instructions about handling of the ballots and about what factors cause a ballot to be accepted or rejected?

-Are the workers applying the rules equitably to all ballots?

-Does the set-up of the work area allow you to observe what you need to be able to see?

-Are the ballots taken from a secure area and is secure chain of custody maintained?

-Is anyone exhibiting obstructionist behavior?

-Are the envelopes kept sealed until after determination of acceptance or rejection is made?




If the process is conducted fairly and accurately, write a letter to the elections office praising them for the quality of their work. Be sure to specify that you're referring to the work you observed; don't draw conclusions about processes or periods of time you did not observe.


If you find significant problems, make sure they get addressed. Depending on the situation, you may want to report the problem to any combination of the following:

-The county elections official

-The state elections official (usually Secretary of State)

-A local or national election integrity or other voting rights group

-Local news media

-Internet news media (blogs, etc.)

-The voting hotlines at 1-866-OUR-VOTE and 1-866-MYVOTE1

-Political parties (local, state, or national offices)

Additional Information: 


Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA)

Provisional ballot litigation by state


General election monitoring materials for reference (not specifically about monitoring provisional and absentee ballot procedures:

What Can Monitoring Accomplish?

Monitoring Guides

Black Box Voting Tool Kit 2008

Black Box Voting Tool Kit 2006 Module: Monitor the Counting

Last updated 11/05/08


prepared by Emily Levy for


Originally posted 11/05/08