Provisional ballots could be the deciding factor in one of the most contentious local races this cycle.
With a week left until Election Day, incumbent state Rep. Eddie Smith (R-Knoxville) and Democratic opponent Gloria Johnson are doubling down to make sure voters make it to the polls.
Johnson is fighting for her old 13th District seat after Smith unseated her in a 2014 midterm race that came down to a difference of fewer than 200 votes.
"It was a very close race and it was a midterm election, so we didn't have that many people voting,” Johnson told WBIR 10News. “This time, hopefully, we'll have a lot more people voting."
If the race comes that close this time around, Knox County might not know who actually won until weeks after the election. That’s because the final tally could come down to provisional ballots.
Provisional ballots are paper ballots that are used when officials have questions about a voter's eligibility. Those votes go to a separate pile to be investigated, and then – if the voter is determined to be eligible – counted after Election Day.
"So I would just like to tell everybody, if you're told for some reason you're no longer registered or we don't have you, go ahead and vote on a provisional ballot," Johnson said.
Johnson worries some voters could simply leave the polls without thinking to ask for a provisional ballot.
After the 2012 presidential election, the county issued 396 rejection letters for provisional ballots for a number of reasons, including identification problems, failure to register or because the person who voted was a felon.
Chris Davis, assistant administrator of elections for Knox County, said the county no longer has records of how many residents voted through provisional ballots. Under state law, the county only has to keep the records for 22 months.
However, he said anecdotally, “We know from election to election that more than half of the provisional ballots won’t be counted.”
Though more than half of all provisional ballots are usually ineligible, those votes could make all the difference for races as close as this one.
"Votes matter. People staying home can affect an election, and people choosing to skip a portion of the ballot can affect an election," said Smith.