Skip Navigation

When Voting by Mail Switches to Voting in Person

There are steps election officials and voters can take to keep the election running smoothly.

What happens when a voter requests a mail ballot but then decides to vote in person because she changed her mind, or her ballot never arrived? This is happen­ing all over the nation, and voters and elec­tion offi­cials will need to take precau­tions to address it in the coming days.

We can better under­stand the scale of the matter by look­ing at Geor­gia. After just nine days of early voting, nearly 12 percent of roughly 1.15 million voters who voted in person had reques­ted a mail ballot. Further­more, 8 percent of all Geor­gia voters who reques­ted absentee ballots had already voted in person.

In Geor­gia, this is not much of an issue for voters or elec­tion offi­cials. These voters are given regu­lar ballots if they show up at the polls. Any mail ballot they submit later will be rejec­ted. But this is not the case in every state. In several, like Cali­for­nia, Flor­ida, and Pennsylvania, voters who reques­ted a mail ballot may vote a regu­lar ballot in person, but only if the voter brings her ballot with her to the polling place and poll work­ers are able to cancel or spoil the absentee ballot. Other­wise they are provided with a provi­sional ballot, which can be coun­ted after it is confirmed the voter did not cast her mail ballot. By contrast, voters in Arizona, Texas, Ohio (on Elec­tion Day), and at least 10 other states are auto­mat­ic­ally provided with a provi­sional ballot when they show up to vote in person.

As a result, some juris­dic­tions have already repor­ted substan­tial amounts of votes cast provi­sion­ally. As Connie Schmidt, elec­tion commis­sioner in John­son County, Kansas, noted, within a few hours of processing on Octo­ber 17, 5,658 advance in-person ballots were processed, 783 of which — 13 percent — were provi­sional “because [the elec­tions office] had already sent a mail ballot to them.” This far exceeds the typical provi­sional voting rate of 1.8 percent in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions.

This trend indic­ates that juris­dic­tions will need more provi­sional ballot mater­i­als than in previ­ous years. Although Elec­tion Day is quickly approach­ing, there are still ways that elec­tion offi­cials and voters can prepare for, and even mitig­ate, a poten­tial surge in provi­sional ballot use.

The Bren­nan Center’s long­stand­ing recom­mend­a­tion has been for elec­tion offi­cials to have enough provi­sional envel­opes and other neces­sary mater­i­als for 40 percent of registered voters in case of a cyber­at­tack on the regis­tra­tion data­base, e-poll­book issues, or any other tech­nical fail­ure.

Even absent such a prob­lem, a much larger amount than has been needed in prior elec­tions will be required to accom­mod­ate voters who reques­ted an absentee ballot. If possible, elec­tion offi­cials, should consider obtain­ing addi­tional provi­sional supplies now to prepare for a surge of in person voting on Novem­ber 3. Fortu­nately, provi­sional envel­opes and affi­davits can gener­ally be reused in future elec­tions.

Unfor­tu­nately, order­ing more provi­sional mater­i­als may not be an option for some elec­tion offi­cials this close to Elec­tion Day, as was the case for elec­tion offi­cials in Arapahoe County, Color­ado, in 2010. They noticed an increased demand for provi­sional ballots and were concerned that they would exhaust their provi­sional envel­ope supply on or even before Elec­tion Day. Offi­cials considered purchas­ing addi­tional mater­i­als, but their vendor was unable to fulfill the orders on such short notice.

However, by order­ing blank envel­opes in bulk from an office supply vendor and work­ing with a hand­ful of employ­ees who could oper­ate presses and Xerox machines, the county’s elec­tions office success­fully prin­ted addi­tional provi­sional envel­opes. Each envel­ope was prin­ted with serial numbers, a require­ment for facil­it­at­ing a post-elec­tion audit. Addi­tion­ally, the affi­davit on the front of the offi­cial provi­sional envel­ope was prin­ted onto sheets that adhered to the new envel­opes. The offi­cials’ adapt­ab­il­ity and ingenu­ity allowed them to accom­mod­ate voters who may have other­wise lost the oppor­tun­ity to vote.

If their states allow, we encour­age elec­tion offi­cials to explore this and other creat­ive options to prepare for an influx of provi­sional voters on and before Elec­tion Day. They can also continue to educate voters on the elect­oral process, from the polling booth to certi­fic­a­tion, and the secur­ity meas­ures put in place protect the vote.

However, elec­tion offi­cials are not the only ones who can make a differ­ence. Voters them­selves play an instru­mental role in redu­cing the strain on elec­tion offices and can take steps to avoid provi­sional voting.

Many states allow voters to drop off their voted absentee ballots in a secure drop box, at their local elec­tion office, or even at a polling loca­tion. Further­more, voters who have reques­ted absentee ballots but choose to vote in person should bring their ballot and ballot mater­i­als with them to the polls, espe­cially if their state allows them to cast their absentee ballot at the polls or turn over that ballot and vote a regu­lar one.

Elec­tion offi­cials have over­come unpre­ced­en­ted obstacles over the past six months, imple­ment­ing count­less resi­li­ency meas­ures to strengthen our elec­tion system. Voters are more engaged in our demo­cratic process than they have been in years and can continue to parti­cip­ate while being proact­ive, patient, and learn­ing about the process. If every­one does their part, we can ensure that that each person can safely and securely cast their ballot.