Explainer: What to Do if Poll Workers Say You Can’t Vote on Election Day

Colleen O'Dea | October 31, 2019 | Explainer, Elections 2019
In last year’s congressional races, an informal survey showed that nearly two of every 100 votes were cast via a provisional ballot

For the vast majority of New Jerseyans, voting is simple: You show up at your designated polling place, give them your name, sign in and go into the voting booth. But what if the workers say you can’t vote?

It happens. In last year’s congressional races, an informal survey of most of the state showed that nearly two of every 100 votes were cast via a provisional ballot, the chief device available to those who are told they can’t use a voting machine on Election Day.

State and federal laws cover voting rules and what happens when a person seeking to cast a ballot does not appear to be eligible. New Jersey even has a Voters’ Bill of Rights that summarizes state voting laws and provides a toll-free number — 1-877-NJ-VOTER — to call with questions or complaints.

Circumstances that might make it difficult to vote

  • The voter’s name does not appear in the polling book. This could be for a number of reasons, including a recent move or a clerical error.
  • The person is voting for the first time and did not provide proper identification when registering.
  • The voter requested a vote-by-mail ballot, or was sent one automatically because they voted by mail in a prior election.

What recourse does a person have?

In most cases, when poll workers determine a person may be ineligible, they should provide a provisional ballot. If a ballot is not offered, the person should ask for one and receive it. A provisional ballot is a paper ballot that is not counted on Election Day, but is taken to the county elections office to be verified after polls close.

The ballots should be counted unless the voter had already cast another ballot in that election or unless the person’s name, signature or address does not match registration records and cannot be verified. People who cast provisional ballots are entitled to know whether their votes counted and they can find out by using the state’s voter hotline or contacting their county board of elections.

How to vote by provisional ballot

A poll worker provides the paper ballot and an envelope, as well as a private location in which to complete the ballot. Once the voter does so, they put it into the envelope and seal it. The voter must complete a statement attached to the envelope in which they affirm they are registered and eligible to vote. That statement must remain attached to the envelope and be signed in order for the ballot to be counted. The voter or a poll worker puts the provisional ballot into a special bag to be delivered to the county board of elections office for verification and counting after polls close.

The new voter who is using a provisional ballot because they did not have ID at the polling place on Election Day must also bring a driver’s license or other acceptable form of identification to the county elections office within 48 hours of casting a ballot in order for the votes to count.

For more information on provision ballots, visit the state Division of Elections website.

Making a move around election time can present problems

It depends where and when a voter moved from one place in the state to another.

  • Someone who moved within the same election district should be able to vote as usual in the voting machine.
  • Someone who moved elsewhere within the same county can vote in their new polling place but only by provisional ballot.
  • Someone who moved out of county 20 days or less before the election cannot vote at their new address but should be able to vote in the election district where they used to live.
  • Someone who moved out of county 21 days or more before the election and did not change their voter registration address cannot vote in that election.

What else could stop a person from voting?

Candidates and political parties are allowed to appoint challengers who observe the conduct of the election at the polling place. Challengers, at times the candidates themselves, can question a person’s right to vote based on citizenship, residency, registration or age.

A challenger fills out a form questioning the potential vote and the voter completes an affidavit and presents identification to prove they are eligible. The poll workers consider the information and determine whether the person can vote.

Polls close at 8 p.m., but anyone who is on line at that time must be allowed to vote.

Other options for ensuring ability to vote

A voter denied the right to cast a ballot due to a challenge can appeal the poll workers’ determination in Superior Court, where judges are available throughout the state on Election Day specifically to handle such matters. A person denied the right to use a voting machine or cast a provisional ballot can also appeal to a judge.

The ACLU-NJ urges people who go to court over voting matters, or who have other concerns about voting, to call its voter hotline – 866-OUR-VOTE.