Provisional ballots an increased concern ahead of election

It’s hard to believe that after what seems like a long drawn-out campaign season, the election is less than 24 hours away. But there is widespread concern that we won’t know who the next U.S. president is by Tuesday.

Such fears are fueled by an increasingly tight race between the two candidates, as well as Superstorm Sandy that has left thousands still without power, over a week later. Potential machine breakdowns due to Sandy or mechanical errors, or highly contested issues such as photo ID requirements or limited poll hours may lead to further complications or lawsuits.

Any complications during the normal voting process, could lead to the casting of provisional ballots. Now, the counting of those ballots in key states is in the spotlight.

What are provisional ballots?

A provisional ballot is the mechanism used to register the vote of a voter who has questionable voter eligibility—whether that is due to refusing to show photo ID if necessary, if voter registration is inaccurate for any reason, or if a ballot for that particular voter has already been registered.

Why are provisional ballots a concern this election?

The number of variables during this election that could lead to the necessity for provisional ballots to be cast for a number of voters (particularly given the unstable conditions that are ongoing following Sandy), make it an increased concern. Provisional ballots are counted after the polls have closed—heightening concerns of whether the votes will be counted in deciding the election.

Eyes will be on key swing states such as Virginia, Ohio and Florida when it comes to the number of provisional ballots cast, given that in a tight race, each party wants to ensure that every vote counts.

“Provisional ballots could very likely be the hanging chads of 2012,” Jocelyn Benson, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and director of the Michigan Center for Law and Administration, told Bloomberg Businessweek.

“The battle over provisional ballots will take center stage where any election is close and a significant number of such ballots have been cast,” she told Bloomberg Businessweek.

Logistically, if there are a large number of provisional ballots cast, the election could be decided long after Nov. 6.

The battle over provisional ballots in the highly-contested Ohio has been of particular concern to some insiders.

Polls close at 7:30 pm in Ohio on Tuesday. If Ohio is particularly close, and polls suggest it might be, there's a chance the outcome there won't be known until after Election Day, and the presidency could hinge on it.

In the last several elections, between two and three percent of the state's votes came from provisional ballots, which aren't counted until later. In 2004, after a long, tense night counting votes, the presidential race wasn't decided until 11 a.m. the next day, when Democrat John Kerry called President George Bush to concede Ohio and the presidency.

Romney desperately needs Ohio; no Republican has won the presidency without it. Without Ohio, Romney would need victories in nearly all the remaining up-for-grabs states and he'd have to pick off key states now leaning Obama's way, such as Wisconsin and Iowa. Obama has more work-arounds than Romney if he can't claim Ohio.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.