In summary

California officials credit new vote centers for a substantial drop in time-consuming provisional ballots this election cycle.

Election workers around California discovered good news in this year’s crush of ballots to be processed and counted: far fewer provisionals.

Officials who faced a mountain of 1 million provisional ballots four years ago instead found just over one-third of that this year. The Secretary of State’s office reported Thursday that counties have an estimated 354,600 to process.

Provisional ballots chew up time from election workers because of the work involved. They must verify that the voter is registered in the county and has not already cast a ballot.

Election officials credit new vote centers available in 15 counties for the lower number of provisional ballots. Brandi Orth, registrar of voters for Fresno County, said the centers allow staff to resolve issues on the spot, unlike traditional polling places that didn’t offer similar services. 

“They can now determine if they voted or not,” she said. Provisional ballots are used when election workers cannot verify at the polls if the voter is eligible to vote.

Under the Voter’s Choice Act of 2016, the 15 counties set up vote centers where voters with issues such as a change of address can get help. They also went to all mail ballots.

But when the state ordered every voter in the state to get a mail ballot in response to the pandemic, all but 16 counties decided to set up the equivalent of vote centers.

A typical provisional ballot situation historically has involved a voter who was sent a mail ballot but came to a polling place to vote in person, said Melinda Duboff, registrar of voters of San Joaquin County.

Provisional ballots chew up time from election workers because of the work involved. They must verify that the voter is registered in the county and has not already cast a ballot.

That would have applied to most in-person voters this year. But because poll workers in most counties could check up-to-date electronic databases to determine instantly whether someone already voted, they could avoid giving a voter a provisional ballot. For instance, San Joaquin County opened voter service centers with access to the databases. That allowed someone who wanted to vote in person to cancel their mailed ballot and get a regular ballot instead of a provisional ballot.

The result: fewer provisional ballots. San Joaquin County told told the Secretary of State it had no provisional ballots left to process in this election, compared to more than 24,000 four years ago.

That’s a good thing, because “voters get upset about it” when required to vote provisionally, said Fresno’s Orth.

In California, there’s a new category of provisional ballots for conditional voter registration, also known as same day registration.

Anyone who is not yet registered or who has had a change in their registration can opt to register in person on election day and then vote. They are given a provisional ballot. Later, election workers verify their eligibility to register and vote before counting the ballot, said Janna Haynes, spokeswoman for the Sacramento County elections department.

This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. In California, CalMatters is hosting the collaboration with the Fresno Bee, the Long Beach Post and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Gary Reed with any commentary questions: gary@calmatters.org, (916) 234-3081.

Lewis Griswold

Lewis is a Votebeat reporter covering election integrity. He lives in Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley. For 22 years, he was a reporter at The Fresno Bee covering agriculture, water, environment, police,...