Undervotes, Overvotes, and Write-ins

– The seventh in a series of articles about elections in Washington State by San Juan County Auditor F. Milene Henley. The County Auditor administers elections and voter registration in the County.

Let’s face it: sometimes you don’t know who to vote for. Maybe it’s a judge, or maybe it’s a state position you’re not familiar with. For whatever reason, voters sometimes leave races blank. That’s called an undervote.

Voters sometimes also mark two candidates in one race. Maybe they changed their minds, or maybe it was just a stray mark, but our sensitive voting equipment will pick up when there are two votes in one race. That’s an overvote.

And then there are write-ins. A treasured tradition of American voting, write-in votes allow even undeclared, unfinanced candidates the possibility of winning elections. In rare cases, write-ins even win. More often than otherwise, however, write-in votes are vehicles for voter frustration with the existing candidates.

Undervotes, overvotes and write-ins are three of the most common voting irregularities we see on ballots. Procedures exist for handling each, to ensure that every voter’s intent is honored.

First, a little myth-busting: We hear surprisingly often from voters who believe that if they don’t vote the entire ballot, their votes will not be counted. Not true! Voters have every right to skip races. When a race is undervoted, the software highlights it for review, in order to ensure that the software didn’t miss anything. If the race is truly not voted, then no vote was cast in that race from that ballot, but the rest of the ballot is still valid.

Overvotes are trickier, because they often require interpretation of voter intent. Washington State is a “voter intent” state. That means that if a voter does not follow instructions for how to mark a ballot, but his or her intent is discernible through a consistent pattern of marking a ballot, we honor intent and count the votes. There is an entire manual, updated annually by the Secretary of State’s Office, to help us with that task.

If intent is discernible, a race will be “resolved” and the vote counted. If multiple candidates are truly marked, then the race will be counted as an “overvote” and no votes counted. Where staff cannot agree on intent, overvotes are referred to the Canvassing Board for resolution.

Write-ins have their own challenges. A few years back, a friend new to the island laughingly told me that he had written in votes for various members of his family throughout the entire ballot. He didn’t know anyone, he explained, so he just wrote in names.

I was not amused. Like undervotes and overvotes, every write-in vote is examined. Votes for “Anybody else” and “Donald Duck” are recorded as “uncertified.” But every name that sounds like a real name is recorded and tracked. If a name comes in often enough to qualify for the next election, then we also check to see if that name is a registered voter. (In most races, 1% of ballots voted for a write-in in an uncontested primary will send that candidate to the general election.) So while we laud the availability of serious write-in votes, we tend to get a little cranky about silly ones.

So vote your conscience, vote your comfort level, and don’t be afraid to skip a race. Make corrections if you need to, and be comfortable that we’ll honor your intent. Vote for write-ins if you’re sincerely motivated. Most of all, just vote.