Whenever a US election approaches, I hear about the existence of provisional ballots:

a provisional ballot is used to record a vote when there are questions about a given voter's eligibility that must be resolved before the vote can count.

But how is the vote anonymity protected when a provisional ballot is cast?

If I cast my vote on a provisional ballot how am I guaranteed that:

  • my vote is counted if I am verified eligible
  • my vote is not counted otherwise
  • my vote is anonymous

all at the same time?


A lot of this comes down to how you define voter anonymity, and which failure modes you are trying to protect against.

Regarding the counting of your vote, you have basically the same protections and risks as someone casting a regular ballot. If you don't trust the system organizing the election, then you can't know with certainty your vote will be counted (or not) according to law, regardless of whether it's provisional or not, since it's always possible for a sufficiently corrupt system to create a "wrong", but believable result from thin air. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) requires that

The appropriate State or local election official shall establish a free access system (such as a toll-free telephone number or an Internet website) that any individual who casts a provisional ballot may access to discover whether the vote of that individual was counted, and, if the vote was not counted, the reason that the vote was not counted, though not the result which was recorded for it.

so if you trust the voting system, you can find out whether or not your vote was counted.

Regarding keeping your vote anonymous, state rules vary, but the vote would typically be stored separately, but securely, with a 1-1 mapping to a signed affidavit recording your identity. As such, your vote itself is not anonymous, in that a sufficiently motivated election official with the correct access could identify you and your ballot by transgressing a few layers of security. However, there is protection against "regular" citizens easily identifying your vote, or from you being able to use a provisional ballot to sell your vote with the buyer having reasonable certainty you voted in a particular direction. Worldwide, this kind of system is generally considered a reasonable balance between an audited ballot and voter anonymity. Some even go further down the "audible" route. For example, all UK ballots have printed serial numbers and the serial number of the ballot issued to each voter is recorded.

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    For the audible part, in Italy we have a system that protects full anonymity as well: the serial number is printed on a removable corner of the ballot, and is removed by the voter in presence of an official just before posting the ballot in the crate (note that the vote cannot be seen at this point). But ok, the answer is basically is "it does not guarantee full anonymity". – Federico Nov 6 '18 at 17:59
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    @Federico The UK system is mostly protecting against ballot stuffing between the polling station and the counting place, which the system you describe wouldn't help with. Unfortunately you can't run an absolutely anonymous, absolutely secure election. – origimbo Nov 6 '18 at 18:03

The exact system may differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. But the basic idea is rather simple. One implementation is to put the provisional ballot inside an envelope. The ballot itself has no identifying information on it. The envelope has identifying information. If the ballot is considered legitimate, they remove the ballot from the envelope and put it in a box to be counted. So if you want to check if your vote was counted, they can tell you whether or not your envelope still has a ballot it in it. They only open the envelope if the ballot is considered legitimate.

It is true that it would be possible for an election official to check your ballot before putting it in the counting box while still knowing from what envelope it was taken. That would be illegal and they can guard against it by having observers who can watch to see if election officials are doing that. The observers do not need to be close enough to read the ballots or envelopes. They just need to be able to see if the election officials are reading the envelopes after opening them or reading the ballots at all.

As a sanity check, they can count the number of open envelopes and the number of provisional ballots and confirm that they match.

The same problem exists for absentee ballots and can be addressed the same way.

This solution assumes that all the things that make a ballot acceptable or not can be put on the envelope. A ballot might be unreadable and therefore not counted, but it was still cast.

  • The solution to the official checking the ballot before putting it in the box is to use two envelopes: an outer, identifying envelope and an inner, blank envelope. The person verifying the ballot's eligibility opens the outer envelope and passes the inner envelope (perhaps indirectly, such as by tossing down a mail chute) to another election official. The second official opens the inner envelope and places the ballot in the box. The first person knows who voted, but not how, while the second knows what the ballot said but not who cast it. – Mark Nov 7 '18 at 23:06
  • This isn't just theoretical, either: it's how Washington State's vote-by-mail system works. – Mark Nov 7 '18 at 23:06

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