Ballot remarking — how much remarking occurs and what does it imply for studies of voter error?

As attention has focused on election administration, and many outside observers have begun to routinely monitor the election process in the United States, one practice that has begun to receive some attention has been the “remarking” or “enhancement” of ballots by election workers. In some jurisdictions, this is a common practice; depending on the exact voting technology being employed, in some jurisdictions election workers will somehow act to try to insure that the voter’s intention is easily read by a tabulation device.

One jurisdiction that has been proactive with this practice is the Los Angeles City Clerk’s office, and their “remaking” of InkaVote ballots in 2005 raised a minor controversy during the Los Angeles mayoral election. In early observation of election-night activities back in the days the City Clerk was still using prescored punchcards, we observed election workers actively removing chads from the prescored punchcard ballots right after they were coming out of the sealed ballot boxes in their initial examination of the ballots.

There is an interesting story in the Seattle Times about this practice in recent Washington State elections. The story goes into great detail as to the problems that election workers are trying to fix, expecially with paper ballots:

Some mark their ballots with red pens, highlighters or hard-lead pencils the scanners can’t read. Others circle candidates’ names, or make “X’s” or checkmarks next to them instead of darkening the ovals. Still more write in names not listed on the ballot, but they don’t fill in the corresponding oval to identify it as a write-in vote.

Some write editorial comments on their ballots — Logan says the Seattle monorail was a popular topic this year — that can stray into ovals or the tracking marks along the ballots’ edges that scanners must read to register votes correctly.

In Snohomish and other counties where voters mark their choices by drawing a line to connect two halves of an arrow, elections officials say they frequently must duplicate two-sided ballots on which voters have drawn lines so heavily that the ink bleeds through to the other side.

Wendy Mauch, Snohomish County’s elections supervisor, says voters will be asked to use only pencils in future elections.

But one of the more interesting aspects of this particular story is the data provided about the extent to which ballot remarking goes on in Washington State. In a graphic associated with the story, the following counties are listed, with their respective rates of ballot remarking (County, number remarked, percent of ballots):

  1. Clark: 14,000 (13.8%)
  2. Whatcom: 8,479 (13.3%)
  3. Kitsap: 9,218 (11.4%)
  4. King: 45,468 (8.3%)
  5. Snohomish: 14,085 (8.0%)
  6. Thurston: 5,051 (6.6%)
  7. Yakima: 2,872 (5.4%)
  8. Pierce: 8,739 (4.7%)
  9. Spokane: 5,000 (3.7%)

Both the Clark and Spokane numbers are estimates.

These percentages are surprising, and the first time I’ve seen estimates of the rates of ballot remarking. If remarking practices like these are widespread, it does indicate that we need to think about the implications of these administrative practices for our measures of voter error, because if numbers like these hold for other jurisdictions this indicates a much higher rate of voter error for paper ballots than has been found in recent research. But as a proximate matter, we clearly need to gather more information about the extent of such practices in jurisdictions using paper ballots, both the regulations surrounding these practices and how many ballots get remarked.