SOS for Democracy

Experts clarify voting vocabulary

Trump’s Big Lie rhetoric has brought attention to the officials who run elections. The former president is backing candidates who believe his debunked claims of election fraud in 2020, while many GOP primary candidates veer right on election restrictions to appeal to his supporters.

WASHINGTON – Ballot harvesting, ballot curing, ballot duplication. The jargon around American elections can perplex and alienate voters. 

States have different sets of rules for both election administration and the voting process, and those rules can vary among jurisdictions. Complicating the issue: ongoing efforts by 2020 election deniers to stoke concerns about ballot security and shake voter confidence in the rules and processes themselves. 

“Part of it is individuals will use terms, and toss around terms, that get repeated on TV or in newspapers or whatever,” often out of context, said Lisa Bryant, a political science professor at California State University in Fresno. She’s also a research advisory board member for the Electronic Registration Information Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization run by the states.

“Voting, for most citizens, in most locations, is not easy,” said Jan Leighly, a political science professor at American University. “It takes some practice and having good information. … Because our states vary with respect to most of the important details, it can be confusing even to someone who’s trying to get involved or cast a ballot.” 

Here are some frequently used terms regarding the voting process and what they refer to; there can sometimes be variation from state to state:

Mail voting and absentee ballots

Voters who will be away from their homes during a voting period – such as students at school in another state or military personnel abroad – can request an absentee ballot. Some states operate with an excuse-required system, where absentee ballot applicants must state the reason for the request, while others have no-excuse systems, offering absentee ballots to any requester.

The return process for absentee ballots varies by mail, online or in person with different deadlines than casting ballots in person.

“In 2020, as we were all trying to familiarize ourselves with voting, there was a bunch of confusion around vote by mail, absentee voting, no-excuses, excuse-required. And all of this sort of misinformation started to spread about what type was most secure, or the idea that any kind of mail voting was fraudulent or favored one party, which we found not to be true,” said Rachel Orey, a senior policy analyst for the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Elections and Congress Projects. Former President Donald “Trump tried to capitalize on that.” 

Since the start of the pandemic, a number of states made voting by mail easier. But that also raised concerns about the security of mailed ballots, though the practice has long been in place with no significant instances of fraud, experts say.  

In states like Colorado and Oregon where voting by mail pre-dated the pandemic, all voters receive ballots in the mail as part of a statewide vote-by-mail system. The return process can vary, and there may be options to vote in person for accessibility or other reasons.  

What is ballot harvesting?

Not allowed in all states, ballot harvesting refers to a third party depositing someone else’s ballot – not filling it out, but taking a signed and sealed ballot and delivering it to a drop box or mailbox.

In some states, this might mean a caregiver or family member dropping off the ballot of someone who cannot do so themselves. 

“The perceived problem with ballot harvesting is that parties will call people and say: ‘Hey, have you returned your ballot? We’re going to be in your neighborhood. We can pick up your ballot and take it for you.’ And so there might be the perception of wrongdoing, that parties are going out and collecting ballots and people and taking them back,” said Bryant.

What’s the difference between ballot duplication and double voting?

When a damaged ballot reaches a poll worker, it might go through the process of ballot duplication: The votes cast on the original ballot are duplicated onto an undamaged sheet, and the damaged sheet is discarded.   

This duplication process is often confused with double voting (casting two votes in separate jurisdictions) or ballot stuffing (one person submitting multiple ballots) – both of which are illegal. 

In an effort to increase elections transparency, certain jurisdictions have begun live-streaming ballot counting.

But “when you’re live streaming ballot duplication, it’s ripe ground for disinformation because you look on the video camera, and people are literally filling out ballots.” Orey said. “And it’s difficult to provide sufficient transparency when people see that and (they) immediately start making assumptions.” 

How does ballot curing work?

Sometimes there’s an issue with confirming the accuracy of the voter’s ID on a ballot, such as apparent illegibility, or a signature discrepancy from the one on file.

In many of those cases states and jurisdictions allow ballot curing, a process by which election officials will notify a voter that their ballot has not been counted and give them an opportunity to “cure” the issue before the vote is discarded.

How are open primaries different from closed ones?  

Primaries are conducted to determine party nominees for the general election in November.

A closed primary requires voters to register their party affiliation before participating and usually confines them to voting only for candidates within that party, while an open primary allows voters to participate – regardless of their party affiliation.

Voting a split ticket or a straight ticket

On a ballot with multiple seats up for election, a straight-ticket voter selects only candidates from one political party, such as selecting only Democrat candidates, straight down the line.

A split-ticket voter, on the other hand, selects candidates from more than one party: for example, Democrats for some offices and Republicans for others.  

There is no requirement to cast a split or straight ticket vote. These terms just describe voting patterns.

Audits, recounts and observers

Audits and observers are both mechanisms of transparency in elections.

As with all these terms, the practical applications vary. But broadly, an audit is an examination of an elections process after it’s concluded, and an observer is an individual who watches an election process as it happens. 

“After 2020, I think audits were an unexpected area that used to be something no one paid attention to and now are incredibly polarized and loaded with kind of partisan perspectives,” Orey said.  

This politicization is unfortunate, Orey said, because audits are “an essential part of election security” that election researchers suggest should be held after all elections.

A routine audit is different from a recount, which is a response to a specific issue, such as a disputed count or a close margin. Some states require recounts when the results are within a certain margin.