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In voting, a ballot is considered to be spoilt, void, null or informal if it is regarded by the election authorities to be invalid and thus not included in the tally during vote counting. This may be done accidentally or deliberately.

In the United States, it is common to distinguish between three classes of ballots:

  • spoiled ballots -- ballots that have been torn, defaced or marked in error, and then returned by the voter to the election officials in exchange for a new ballot.[1]
  • invalid ballots -- ballots that contain stray marks or other markings that invalidate the entire ballot,[2] and
  • invalid votes -- marks on ballots that do not count as votes but that do not invalidate the counting of other votes found on the same ballot. Invalid votes are broadly divided into undervotes where no vote is cast in a race, and overvotes, where an attempt is made to cast too many votes in a race.[3]

These distinctions arise largely because of the common practice in the United States of voting on a large number of different issues on a single ballot.

Ways of spoiling a ballot include:

  • leaving the ballot blank (though some ballots include an explicit "none of the above" option)
  • completing the ballot in an illogical or unapproved manner, such as:
    • casting more than the permitted number of votes, for example, more than one vote in a plurality voting system, an overvote.
    • filling a preference ballot out of sequence, e.g. 1-2-2-3-4 or 1-2-4-5-6, or marking such a ballot with an "X" where that is not permitted.
  • filling the ballot in a manner which is illegible or incomprehensible.
  • physically deforming ballots, especially those counted by machine.
  • writing on the ballot, other than the minimal marks necessary to complete it, may be regarded as compromising the secrecy of the ballot due to the possibility of handwriting analysis establishing the voter's identity.

Ballot design and voter instruction are intended to minimise accidental spoiling of votes. Some election officials have discretion to include ballots where the strict criteria for acceptability are not met but the voter's intention is clear. More complicated electoral systems may be more prone to errors. Group voting tickets were introduced in Australia owing to the high number of informal votes cast in single transferable vote elections.

Spoilt votes may be the result of a deliberate act by the voter; some proportion are likely to be protest votes, especially in systems where voting is compulsory. Intentionally spoiling someone else's ballot before or any ballot during tabulation is a method of election fraud. In Australia, inciting others to vote informally is illegal, though informal voting is not.

Paper-based voting systems are thought to be more susceptible to unintentional errors that spoil ballots; some paper-based voting systems and most DRE voting machines can notify voters of undervotes and overvotes.

The validity of the election may be questioned if there is an unusually high proportion of spoilt votes, however, in countries such as the UK where spoilt ballots are counted, some voters will deliberately spoil their ballot paper to show disapproval of the candidates available whilst still taking part in the electoral process.

References

  1. ^ See, for example, Kentucky Revised Statutes 117.385, effective July 15, 1982
  2. ^ See, for example, Determining the Validity of Optical Scan Ballot Markings, Michigan Bureau of Elections, May 27, 2004.
  3. ^ Overvotes and Undervotes, Section 3:22 of the 2006 Election Administration and Voting Survey United States Election Assistance Commission.

See also

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