Twisted Logic: How Ballots Get Counted in the Real World

Today I’m going to give a flavor of the pretzel logic that applies to the way ballots are counted in the U.S. An alternative title for this post might be “Welcome to the real world of Federal Democracy” because several states have their own different pretzel. You can have 2 marked ballots, each in a different state, but very very similar; but in one case the ballot is completely kosher, while in the other place some votes won’t count. The reason, of course, is variations in states’ election law and regulation, and in local jurisdiction’s practices in applying the law and regs.

Probably the classic case, or perhaps the most infamous, is the “straight-party vote”. This is a voting method available in some states, where the ballot design contains a “convenience” (exercise for the reader: who it’s convenient for, and who benefits) for filling one bubble in order to indicate a vote for several candidates — all the candidates for a single political party. However, when a voter marks a straight-party bubble on a ballot, they are not finished! In most cases, there are non-partisan elections as well (city council, school board, water district, …) and ballot measures or referenda. To complete the ballot, a voter must make a mark for these other items on the ballot. Now, the straight-party voting option might be convenient, but it also raises the question of interpretation of subsequent “unnecessary” marks for candidates in partisan offices. These may be construed as meaningful to the voter — so-called “emphasis votes” or “over-rride votes” — or as an accident, mistaking a partisan election for a non-partisan one that is not covered by the straight-party option.

Let’s look at some of the cases, in a hypothetical election where:

  • the top of the ticket is the U.S. Presidential election including candidates
    • A. Beaucoup of the Peace-and-Freedom party, and
    • B. Yovon of the Conservative-Independent party;
  • there are other Federal and state offices with partisan elections, including a state assembly contest in the middle of the ballot, including candidates
    • C. Bonichose for Peace-and-Freedom, and
    • D. Yamhill for Conservative-Independent.

Now, suppose a voter marks a ballot this way:

  1. She selects the Conservative-Independent option for a straight-party vote.
  2. It seems odd to her, though, to just leave blank the ballot item for U.S. President. Just to make sure her vote counts, she also makes a selection for Yovon for President (even though she has already made a vote for Yovon, by doing the straight-party vote).
  3. The voter then turns over the page of the 2-sided ballot, and makes a mark to select Bonichose for state assembly, in an attempt to “over-ride” the straight-party vote in this one case where the voter does not favor the Conservative-Independent party candidate.

Step 2 is an example of a so-called “emphasis vote” that is not uncommon for top-of-the-ticket contests in “big elections.” Step 3 is an example of an “over-ride vote” that can also be interpreted as a oversight where the voter didn’t notice the party of the candidates.

But what does this ballot mean? Cases like this require rules for human and machine interpretation of these marks as valid votes, or overvotes. Both an “emphasis” and “over-ride” vote could be construed as an over-vote, a case where the voter voted in a race once, by straight-party, and again in an individual race. This might seem odd, given that in the “emphasis” case, both votes were for the same candidate! And in the “over-ride” case, some might view the vote as quite meaningful. But the meaning is (or should be) established in election law, which is specific to each state, and states with straight-party voting, what may be valid in one state is an over-vote in another, i.e., the emphasis or over-ride vote invalidates the voter’s selection for the contest, and no vote for that contest should be recorded for that ballot.

So what we really have, from the point of view of voting system software requirements, is a crazy-quilt of state rules. What is a voting system developer to do? That’s another twisted logic story for another day.


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