What happens if a ballot is damaged or improperly marked?
Election workers reconstruct or “duplicate” ballots that are damaged or improperly marked to preserve voters’ intent. This is necessary if a ballot has, say, a coffee stain or tear — or if a voter circled a candidate rather than filled in a bubble to make their selection — and therefore can’t be read by a machine.
While the process might sound strange to those not familiar with election administration, it’s a legitimate and longstanding way to ensure voters have their votes counted, according to experts. It’s also widely used to translate votes cast by those overseas or in the military onto ballots that can be scanned.
The ballot duplication process involves transcribing a voter’s choices from the damaged ballot onto a new, clean ballot that can be scanned and counted. How exactly that process is handled varies across states.
In many cases, it’s done by bipartisan teams of poll workers, said Barry Burden, a political science professor and director of the Elections Research Center at University of Wisconsin-Madison. That’s not the case everywhere, though it’s common that it’s performed by at least two people — even two staff members — said Jennifer Morrell, a partner at The Elections Group, which works with election officials to improve processes.
Many key states in the midterm elections this year — such as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin — call for the ballot duplication process to be done by individuals representing different political parties.
There are some cases in which mistakes on a ballot can’t simply be corrected because it’s impossible to confirm the voter’s intent. For example, sometimes a voter makes too many selections in a particular contest, or leaves a stray mark that doesn’t clearly indicate their chosen candidate.
The rules for such ballots depend on jurisdiction. In some places, a ballot with a mistake in one race would simply exclude that race, but in other places, none of the voter’s choices would be counted, Burden said in an email. He added that whether the original ballot is destroyed or retained depends on the state.
Experts say the ballot duplication process is generally done in view of the public or poll watchers. Many states also require that the original and ballot duplicates be labeled and assigned corresponding numbers, creating a paper trail between the two.
Distortions about the ballot duplication process have fueled false claims.
In 2020, footage from a publicly available video stream showed Delaware County, Pennsylvania, election workers transcribing votes from damaged ballots to clean ballots for scanning. But social media posts shared cropped footage, which didn’t show the bipartisan observers present, and baselessly alleged the video was proof of voter fraud.
“Ballot duplication is a standard part of the election administration process and has been for many years,” Burden said. “It is essential for many people who vote by mail whose ballots are not readable by machines, including many overseas and military voters who cast ballots by different means that must be copied onto standard paper ballots.”
If a voter makes a mistake or their ballot is damaged before they turn it in, they can also follow the instructions provided by local officials to request a new one, said Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor for the elections program at the nonpartisan Democracy Fund. The original ballot will be nullified and only one will count.
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