Confusion over provisional ballots is one reason Kansas needs same-day voter registration

December 15, 2020 3:55 am

Currently, 21 states have some form of Election Day registration. Kansas is not among them. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Letitia Harmon is a political science and anthropology adjunct professor at Johnson County Community College.

I have worked on voting rights campaigns and advocated for changes to voting laws in the Kansas State Legislature and Congress. Wanting to see how policies that I lobbied for were working, I became a poll worker for the 2020 general election in Johnson County.

The process in Johnson County was efficient, secure and professional. Most people followed this year’s additional health and safety measures. It was generally a positive experience.

But what bothered me was the way I was told to explain, or rather not explain, provisional ballots. The information we gave voters was intentionally opaque — and maybe even deceitful. It’s a problem that could be solved with same-day voter registration.

Many Kansans know that they must register 21 days ahead of Election Day or they will not be able to vote. However, I observed many Kansans who did not know this and came to the polls unregistered. Because those Kansans did not appear in the poll books, we gave them provisional paper ballots rather than standard ballots.

Most people don’t understand provisionals or how they’re different.

The Election Office was firm on the language workers could use to describe them. Even if someone told me they hadn’t registered, or told me they lived in another state, I was not allowed to tell them ballots only counted for Kansas residents registered before October 14. Kansas statute KSA 25-2316c makes the law clear, but I wasn’t allowed to explain that. Instead, I was instructed to tell people they would be able to vote with a provisional ballot that day, and we would register them on the spot. I don’t think people understood their registration would only apply to future elections.

Few of the election workers understood provisional ballots themselves, and so explained them poorly. When I expressed frustration to my assistant election judge, she told me we should never turn away anyone who wanted to vote. She said that it’s up to the Election Commission to decide which ballots are valid and which are not.

It seemed to me that they just didn’t want to deal with disgruntled Kansans who were angry they couldn’t vote. Each voter received a ballot, filled it out carefully, sealed it in a secure envelope, and dropped it in a ballot bag.

This was all for show, because the workers knew that ballot was not valid. Voters left the polling place believing they had performed their civic duty without a hitch. In past elections, those voters have been overwhelmingly young and/or people of color.

We saw a huge increase in provisional ballots cast in the 2020 general election.

After politicians tried to cast doubt on the security of mail-in ballots and news stories about possible postal delays, many people who had requested mail-in ballots discarded them and came to vote in person. We encouraged people to just bring the mail-in ballots and drop them in person, because we would be dropping their provisional ballot in the exact same box. But those provisionals would not be counted until after election day, and after the Election Commission had confirmed they had not voted twice. Their ballots were counted if they were eligible, but it was an extra administrative step, and provisional ballots run a higher risk of being rejected for some technicality such as matching signature or name spelling.

Provisional voting is not inherently bad. The idea is good, because it means that if there’s some question about a voter’s registration, they get to cast a ballot, and if it can be counted, it will be.

But same-day registration would be better. Currently, 21 other states have some form of Election Day registration.

Legislation such ask Kansas Senate Bill 351, which was introduced last legislative session but died in committee, would also help. It would have allowed provisional ballots to be counted if a voter is eligible but does not appear in the poll book. Sometimes the reasons for this are simple: the voter moved but had not updated their address and needed to vote provisionally in order for it to count in their new precinct. The process is there to protect the voter from being turned away from the polls if their address is incorrect in the poll book.

The least the Johnson County Election Office could do is allow voters to be accurately informed about provisional ballots, rather than prioritizing a disingenuous customer service experience. Shielding voters from this knowledge means that they are uninterested in advocating for changes such as SB 351.

Ultimately, we need to pass a bill for same day registration.

Until then, much of provisional ballot-casting is just theater intended to keep voters happy with their experience.

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Letitia Harmon
Letitia Harmon

Letitia Harmon is a political science and anthropology adjunct professor at Johnson County Community College. She has previously worked as a policy analyst and as an International Human Rights consultant in the United States, India, Nepal, Kenya and Kuwait. She has a master's degree in International Relations from the University of Washington.