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In voting, a ballot is considered spoilt, spoiled, void, null, informal, or stray if election authorities declare it invalid and thus do not include it in the vote count. This may occur accidentally or deliberately. The total number of spoilt votes in a United States election has been called the residual vote.
Types of spoiled vote
Ways of spoiling a ballot include:
- an undervote: leaving sections of the ballot blank, or marking nothing at all (though some ballots include an explicit "none of the above" option)
- completing the ballot in an illogical or unapproved manner, such as:
- filling the ballot in a manner that makes the voter's decision incomprehensible.
- physically deforming ballots, especially those counted by machine
- making marks on the ballot other than those necessary to complete it, where the voter's identity can be ascertained, compromising the secrecy of the ballot
If a voter makes a mistake while completing a ballot, it may be possible to cancel it and start the voting process again. In the United States, cancelled physical ballots may be called "spoiled ballots", as distinct from an "invalid vote" which has been cast.
In Canada, a spoiled ballot is one that has been handled by an elector in such a manner that it is ruined beyond use, or that the deputy returning officer finds soiled or improperly printed. The spoiled ballot is not placed in the ballot box, but rather is marked as spoiled by the deputy returning officer and set aside. The elector is given another ballot. A 'rejected ballot' is one which cannot be counted due to improper marking by the voter. Examples of this are ballots which have more than one mark, the intent of the voter cannot be ascertained, or the voter can be identified by their mark.
In many jurisdictions, if multiple elections or referenda are held simultaneously, then there are separate physical ballots for each, which may be printed on different-colored paper and posted into separate ballot boxes. In the United States, a single physical ballot is often used to record multiple separate votes. In such cases one can distinguish an "invalid ballot", where all votes on the ballot are rendered invalid, from a "partially valid" ballot, with some votes valid and others invalid.
Voter instruction is intended to minimize or even preclude accidental spoiling of votes. Ballot design can aid or inhibit clarity in an election, resulting in less or more accidental spoiling. 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.
The United States Election Assistance Commission's survey of the 2006 midterm elections reported undervoting rate of 0.1% in US Senate elections and 1.6% in US House elections; overvotes were much rarer. Some paper-based voting systems and most DRE voting machines can notify voters of under-votes and over-votes. The Help America Vote Act requires that voters are informed when they have overvoted, unless a paper-ballot voting system is in use.
The percentage of accidentally spoilt votes is lowest when the ballot requires voting for only one candidate[dubious ]. Designs such as the butterfly ballot, which alternate candidates between one side and the other with the place to be marked along the seam of the ballot, can make mistakes and spoiled ballots more likely.
Spoiled votes may result from a deliberate act by a voter, from protest votes, especially in compulsory voting. Intentionally spoiling someone else's ballot before or during tabulation is election fraud.
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 deliberately spoil their ballot paper to show disapproval of the candidates available whilst still taking part in the electoral process. This may include signing or printing the voter's name on the ballot slip. Evidence points that this practice dates back to times when electoral wards were assigned a designated scīrgerefa (Old English) or "sheriff" a royal official responsible for keeping the peace throughout a shire or county on behalf of the king and who would pay royalties to those who had shown their support.
In multiple-vote U.S. ballots, "voter roll-off" is calculated by subtracting the number of votes cast for a "down-ballot" office, such as mayor, from the number of votes cast for a "top-of-the-ballot" office, such as president. When the election jurisdiction does not report voter turnout, roll-off can be used as a proxy for residual votes. Some voters may only be interested in voting for the major offices, and not bother filling in the lower positions, resulting in a partially valid ballot. Roll-off can also be known as undervoting.
- Election fraud
- Ballot design in the Single Transferable Vote: discusses exhausted votes, which cannot be transferred owing to too few preferences being expressed
- Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, Residual Votes Attributable to Technology: An Assessment of the Reliability of Existing Voting Equipment, version 2, 3 Mar. 2001, http://www.hss.caltech.edu/~voting/CalTech_MIT_Report_Version2.pdf
- See, for example, Kentucky Revised Statutes 117.385, effective July 15, 1982
- Elections Canada
- See, for example, Determining the Validity of Optical Scan Ballot Markings, Michigan Bureau of Elections, May 27, 2004.
- "Appendix B". 2006 Election Administration and Voting Survey. pp. 52–55.
- Help America Vote Act Section 301(a)1(A)(iii)