Explained: Why provisional ballots are unlikely to change outcome | US & Canada

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Thousands of provisional ballots are still being counted in key US states, but are unlikely to sway election results.

A flood of provisional ballots is still being counted in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada – all key swing states that turned the United States presidential election for Democrat Joe Biden, who is projected to win the White House.

Could those ballots change the projected outcome of the election?

It is an unlikely prospect, as President Donald Trump would have to win almost all of the provisional ballots in those key states – and provisional ballots tend to split towards the winner of the race.

Still, like all of 2020, this US election is different – and far more provisional ballots were filed than in past contests due to a heavy reliance on mail ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With Biden’s margin of victory so tight in key states and Trump demanding recounts, there now will be an intense focus on provisional ballots, tens of thousands of which still need to be counted as of Saturday in several states.

Provisional ballots are counted once the main voting is complete and must be resolved before final tallies in states can be certified by election officials [File: Mary Altaffer/AP]

Usually, the counting of provisional ballots is uneventful. These types of ballots are cast on Election Day when voters are unable to cast a regular vote because of discrepancies in registration records, identification or questions about a mail-in ballot.

Provisional ballots are counted once the main voting is complete and must be resolved before final tallies in states can be certified by officials.

It is a time-consuming process because provisional ballots are usually handled individually and require a clerk to reconcile registration records with voter IDs or resolve other complications.

Automatic recounts

In Arizona, where Biden’s lead is about 20,000 votes, election officials said they expected to count tens of thousands of provisional ballots over the weekend.

Another 18,000 provisional ballots are still being tabulated in Georgia, where Biden holds a very narrow lead of 7,000 votes over Trump.

An election official in Pennsylvania told reporters that as of Friday, the state still needed to count 85,000 provisional ballots, as well.

Biden’s lead in that critical swing state was 34,000 on Saturday morning, an advantage over Trump of just 0.50 percent.


It will take a few days for election officials to complete the counts of provisional ballots.

In Pennsylvania, provisional ballots do not have scannable bar codes that allow tracking and have to be handled individually, the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper reported.

But while the provisional ballot count is unlikely to affect the projected outcome of the tightly contested election, one thing it could influence is the automatic recount process in some states.

For example, some state laws require automatic recounts when the margin is 0.5 percent or less.

With the race so tight, provisional ballots could make the difference to whether a state like Pennsylvania is forced to do a recount, which could drag on the final certification of the election for weeks.

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