TALLAHASSEE — It's the most unreliable way to vote, a last resort in which half of the ballots are disqualified.
Created by Congress a decade ago, the provisional ballot was intended as a final attempt to preserve the right to vote for someone whose eligibility is in doubt.
Florida saw a surge in such ballots in 2012 even though turnout was nearly the same as four years ago.
The reason: a much-maligned law approved by Gov. Rick Scott and the 2011 Legislature that, among other things, required people moving to a different county to vote provisionally if they didn't change their address a month before Election Day.
As a result, provisional ballots jumped an average of 25 percent in counties reviewed by the Times/Herald, further taxing elections officials struggling with extra paperwork from a separate rise in absentee ballots.
"It's like pouring sand into the gears of the machine," said Ion Sancho, the Leon County supervisor of elections, who had a 56 percent spike in provisional ballots, driven mostly by incoming Florida State students.
Supporters say the county-to-county requirement was needed to combat fraud and prevent people from voting twice by casting ballots in two counties. But those supporters lacked evidence that it happened, and the 2012 election didn't bolster their case.
Interviews with elections officials and a preliminary review of 2012 provisional ballot figures show that type of fraud is essentially nonexistent.
Despite the surge in provisional ballots, none of the counties reviewed by the Times/Herald reported rejecting one of them because someone tried to vote twice. Not in Pinellas County, which had nearly 500 county transfers. Nor Hillsborough County, with 500, or 600 in Orange County.
"There hasn't been any instance of someone moving from one county and voting in another," said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley.
"We've never found a voter who voted in one county and tried to vote in our county," said Palm Beach County supervisor Susan Bucher.
Each provisional ballot takes about 30 minutes to review and inspect, said Ron Labasky, counsel for the state association of election supervisors.
Voters cast provisional ballots when they show up at the wrong precinct, lack an ID or register to vote after the deadline.
Before the law changed last year, voters who showed up at the correct precinct, but were registered in another county could cast regular ballots because clerks could verify their status on a statewide database. After the law changed, those voters — many of them college students or young people changing jobs — were forced to cast provisional ballots. That held up lines as poll workers telephoned other counties to confirm the voters hadn't already voted.
"It resulted in a lot of extra work," Labasky said.
The rise in out-of-county provisional ballots ensured that the rejection rate would drop. So despite a 25 percent increase in provisional ballots among 11 counties reviewed by the Times/Herald, the rejection rate fell from 60 percent in 2008 to 46 percent this year.
"All this change did was just increase the amount of paperwork for our supervisors of elections while decreasing the amount of time to process other votes," said Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida.
Provisional ballot rejection rates vary wildly among counties. Palm Beach rejected 74 percent while Pasco rejected 9 percent, a sign that counties use different standards, Smith said.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, sponsored the law that included the provisional ballot changes. Despite the national criticism he has received for supporting it, Baxley said the changes were needed.
Baxley said he pushed to have the out-of-county requirement after talking with a friend, Alachua County GOP chairman Stafford Jones.
Baxley said Jones told him that voters from Tampa and other cities shifted their voter registrations to Gainesville for a day to vote in the city's 2010 mayoral election in which Craig Lowe became the city's first openly gay mayor by a 42-vote margin.
"It wasn't right for people to move in and steal an election like that," Baxley said.
Jones said he wanted the county transfer provision to keep college students from voting.
"The liberals do a good job of bringing in college kids to vote on local issues," Jones said. "The kids vote on raising our taxes, but don't have to live here to pay the consequences."
Jones said he has no proof to support his assertion, only recollections of liberal blog posts that people were moving to vote.
Will Boyett, Alachua's chief deputy supervisor, said his office researched the claims and found nothing to back them.
Boyett said it's farfetched that someone would try to vote twice and risk being charged with a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.
"We've never seen someone do it," Boyett said. "One reason why is, you're going to get caught. It makes us wonder, 'If that fraud isn't occurring, why are we trying to stop it?' "
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]