Ballot Duplication: New Recommendations for Contingency Planning in the time of COVID-19 and Beyond

Ballot Duplication Recommendations: Recommendations are in text

In our blog, “Ballot Duplication: What It is, what it is not, and why we are talking about it in 2020,”we discussed what Ballot Duplication is, what it is not and why it is important today.

With an eye toward contingency planning for Nov. 3, 2020 and beyond, the Sustainability of UOCAVA Balloting Solutions Subgroup of The Council of State Governments Overseas Voting Initiative (OVI) developed new recommendations for duplication of damaged and/or machine unreadable ballots.

Ballot Duplication Recommendations: Recommendations are in text

Election officials should consider and implement the following recommendations as time and resources allow:

    • Election officials should continually evaluate their ballot duplication procedures, manual or automated solutions, staffing levels and any equipment needs well in advance of each future election, noting any actionable changes or enhancements needed or desired resulting from an increase in remote ballots.
    • Election officials should explore and consider avenues for remote observation of the ballot duplication process by the public — including voters, candidates and the media — to enhance transparency. For example, remote technology platforms could be used by election officials to allow for participation in or observation of the ballot duplication process and other aspects of the canvass, similar to the way they usually could in person.
    • Election officials should consider developing educational videos, frequently asked questions landing pages, documents and infographics representing a jurisdiction’s ballot duplication process to help educate voters, candidates and the media about the ballot duplication process. Having this and other election administration information on hand will help jurisdictions eliminate any perceived mystery in the process while increasing understanding and transparency. These tools could be shared as part of a jurisdiction’s pre-election and post-election media and editorial board visits along with other election process and canvassing information.
Specific COVID related guidance
    • Election offices should take extra care in handling ballots and any duplication and tabulation equipment. COVID-19 specific guidance provided by the U.S. Federal Voting Assistance Program, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control,  the United States Postal Service and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission should be reviewed often and at regular intervals regarding any updates to the handling of ballots and election equipment
      • Election workers should use precautions when using hand sanitizers while handling ballots as they could accidentally smear, damage or otherwise render ballots machine unreadable.
      • Election workers should use precautions to prevent damaging ballots when opening ballot envelopes as voters could use thick tape and other adhesives that jam sorters and other (envelope opening) equipment at local election offices.
      • Election workers should use only technology provider-approved disinfectant and cleaning solutions on tabulation and duplication equipment to avoid damaging equipment or ballots.
    • Election officials should review current remote voter instructions and consider providing additional language to help prevent damaged or machine unreadable ballots due to the use of hand sanitizer or adhesives for sealing ballot envelopes. For example, voter instructions could include the following information:
      • Voters should keep all chemicals, including hand sanitizers and disinfectants, away from ballots so they do not become smeared or otherwise damaged and rendered machine unreadable upon reaching local election offices.
      • In an effort to avoid “licking” ballot envelopes to seal them for mailing, voters should use water to seal ballot envelopes and not use thick tape and other adhesives that can damage ballot envelopes during opening by election staff and/or equipment.

In our continuing blog series on ballot duplication, we will be expanding on some of the above recommendations, highlighting what OVI Working Group members are doing in their jurisdictions with regard to ballot duplication, sharing frequently asked questions (with answers!) on ballot duplication to aid in discussing this concept with external stakeholders, and sharing information about ballot duplication options offered by technology providers.

Ballot Duplication: What it is, what it is not and why we are talking about it in 2020

Definition of ballot duplication

Ballot duplication is a term well known to and commonly used by election officials throughout the U.S. This long-existing term — also known as ballot replication, ballot remaking and, less commonly but perhaps most accurately, ballot transcription — may sound a bit mysterious or perhaps downright nefarious to those not involved in the day-to-day intricacies of state and local election administration.

In the midst of a presidential election cycle, it is important to explain this sometimes misunderstood term and demystify it. Now, more than ever, a thorough understanding of this process is important, especially as all election processes receive extra attention and focus from the public, media and other stakeholders as we approach November. Ballot duplication remains a critically important concept for election officials in 2020 and beyond, and it is important to understand why.

The Council of State Governments Overseas Voting Initiative (OVI) Working Group of state and local election officials studied and issued recommendations to improve ballot duplication for state and local election officials with military and overseas ballots as the focal point in 2016. In 2017, OVI expanded on these recommendations.

In all states, Washington, D.C., and the five U.S. territories, groups of voters who meet certain jurisdictional qualifications can cast remote ballots using a vote-by-mail or absentee voting process. Many of these voters are military and overseas voters covered by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) who do not have the option to vote in person within their voting jurisdiction in the U.S. With the passage of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment  Act, all UOCAVA voters can receive their ballots electronically — typically via email or an online portal. Additionally, some states allow ballots to be returned electronically, most commonly by email, via portal and fax.

What is ballot duplication?

According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), ballot duplication is the process for replacing damaged or improperly marked ballots (i.e., the voting system cannot read the ballot) with a new ballot that preserves the voter’s intent. The ballot duplication processes create a “clean ballot” with the voter’s choices that can be read by ballot tabulation equipment. The process also ensures that the original voter-marked ballot is retained for the record including any required auditing. It is the duplicated or transcribed “clean ballot,” and not the damaged one, that is counted by tabulation equipment.

Why conduct ballot duplication?

Describes common causes for damaged or unusable ballots as identified in the text.

In almost all local election jurisdictions, paper ballots are tabulated electronically, using some form of ballot scanning technology.  There are four common problems that arise, rendering paper ballots difficult or impossible to process with a ballot tabulation system.   

    1. Ballots can be damaged during the life cycle of a ballot. Anything from coffee spills to wrinkles and tears can interfere with a ballot being scanned by a tabulation system.  
    2. Ballots filled out with inappropriate marking implements — pencils, highlighters, colored pens, chalk, cosmetic pencils, paints, crayons and colored art pencils — cannot be processed by a tabulation system.  
    3. The voter’s intent may be clear under a state’s election laws but marked in a way that a tabulation system cannot read. For example, the voter may mark the ballot inappropriately, by circling a candidate’s name when instructions indicate a bubble must be filled in.  Additionally, stray marks on the ballot can interfere with the tabulation system’s ability to scan the ballot.  
    4. The returned ballot may not be (1) the appropriate paper stock quality and weight, (2) the correct orientation (portrait or landscape), or (3) sized so that the voting marks and ballot positions can be read by the scanner and the ballot tabulated.  

The last problem occurs most often when voters covered by UOCAVA have requested a ballot electronically and the electronic ballot is printed by the voter. Ballots printed by voters are typically not on paper that is the same weight or size as the paper ballot a voter would receive at a local election office and are often printed on A-4 sized paper, which is the global paper standard size outside the U.S. Additionally, some voters either reduce or enlarge the ballot prior to printing with both actions reducing image quality.

In anticipation of receiving these potentially damaged ballots or those rendered unreadable by ballot tabulation equipment, election officials work to ensure that processes, procedures, trained team members and any desired technology solutions are in place in local election offices before each election.

What ballot duplication is NOT

Graphic of important note in text

It’s important to note that the term duplication or replication should not be interpreted as a type of corrupt process to create additional ballots, either voted or unvoted. Ballot Duplication is simply the transcribing of damaged or otherwise machine-unreadable ballots as described above so that these ballots can be tabulated with the others. The ballots cast by UOCAVA, absentee and other remote voters are more likely to fall into one or more of these four problem areas, thus the ballot duplication process is utilized to ensure these ballots will be counted as cast, enabling these voters to exercise their franchise.

Why are we talking about ballot duplication in 2020?

Ballot duplication — or ballot transcription — is part of an election official’s contingency planning process. At its core, ballot duplication is an example of election administration contingency planning in action.

OVI’s December 2019 report, “Examining the Sustainability of Balloting Solutions for Military & Overseas Voting,” noted, “States are under increasing legislative pressure to have contingency plans for all aspects of their election systems, including UOCAVA balloting solutions, due to recent national disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Dorian, and global threats of terrorism, civil disobedience, cyberattacks and mail service disruptions.”

While this report does not specifically mention a worldwide pandemic in its list of global threats, the report’s reference to the importance of contingency planning in all aspects of election administration is all too applicable to the COVID-19 crisis of 2020.

Precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, some states and local jurisdictions have moved to a by-mail or ballot drop-off voting process, either eliminating or reducing in-person voting at a polling place. Others have expanded their absentee voting programs. These states and local jurisdictions are either incorporating no-excuse absentee voting into their voting programs or expanding legally allowable reasons for voters to cast their ballots remotely to include COVID-19 concerns.

As a result, local election officials nationwide may receive higher volumes of ballots in the mail. Many of these ballots may fall into the problem areas described above and thus cannot be read by tabulation equipment. It is safe to say that more remote voting will result in more overall usage of ballot duplication solutions to count these ballots.

This article is the first in a series of posts on the topic of Ballot Duplication. In the next installment, we will share important new recommendations from the OVI Sustainability of UOCAVA Balloting Solutions Subgroup members to help election officials improve their ballot duplication process and hopefully lessen the need for it over time.

Overseas Voting Initiative Special Task Force Issues Recommendations to Improve Ballot Processes for Overseas Citizens

The ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic has caused mail disruptions around the world that will undoubtedly impact the many American citizens living and working abroad when it comes time to vote in the November election. As of late June, the United States Postal Service (USPS) lists 103 international mail disruptions — a number that changes regularly.

Voters in 20 states that only allow military and overseas voters to return their voted ballots to their local election officials by mail, will struggle to find a way to cast a ballot in the 2020 elections.

“While the number of voters who may fall into this narrow category could be relatively small, each and every individual vote matters and could change the outcome of an election,” said Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, co-chair of The Council of State Governments Overseas Voting Initiative. “As election officials, we need to do our level best to ensure that every eligible citizen who wants to cast a ballot is able to do so and to ensure that ballot is counted.”

The Council of State Governments (CSG) Overseas Voting Initiative Working Group, comprised of 27 state and local election officials from across the nation, convened to specifically address the global mail disruptions and the impact on overseas voters. This group of elections officials, recognizing that they are uniquely positioned to advocate for the voters at issue, compiled a list of available options for states to examine as a fail-safe for overseas voters in order to help prevent potential disenfranchisement.

The recommendations for consideration from this special Fail-Safe Task Force can be found here: https://ovi.csg.org/failsaferecommendations/

“This nonpartisan group felt an urgent need to provide guidance to their peers,” said Taylor Lansdale, project manager for the CSG Overseas Voting Initiative. “CSG was honored by their request to provide a forum for these imperative discussions. The recommendations the group produced are eye-opening and will prove valuable for all states.”

For the 20 states that only allow ballot return via mail, there are limited options to ensure that overseas voters have access to federal election ballots. Further complicating this problem, policymakers have a very limited window of time to make changes to help these voters.

“There are limited options and limited time,” said Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, co-chair of the CSG Overseas Voting Initiative. “Policymakers are running up against election preparation deadlines to make any substantive changes that will help voters in this situation. The right to vote is sacred and enshrined in our Constitution. Therefore, we need election officials, governors and legislators to be aware of this potential issue and help us mitigate it so that voters can exercise their right to vote in our democratic process.”

To learn more about the work of the Overseas Voting Initiative, visit ovi.csg.org.

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The Council of State Governments Issues New Report on Technology Solutions for Military and Overseas Voting

Overseas Voting Initiative, a collaboration by CSG and the Federal Voting Assistance Program, examines sustainability of balloting solutions for military and overseas voting

LEXINGTON, Ky.—The Council of State Governments announced today the issuance of a report by its Overseas Voting Initiative, or OVI, titled, “Examining the Sustainability of Balloting Solutions for Military & Overseas Voting.” The report is part of its current multi-year collaboration with the U.S. Department of Defense Federal Voting Assistance Program, or FVAP.

The report was presented last week during the CSG National Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico by a panel of election officials who serve as members of the OVI Working Group. The OVI Working Group studies voting challenges related to voters covered under Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, or UOCAVA, in an effort to improve the voting process for this group of voters and the election officials who serve them.

The report presented in San Juan was developed through the work of OVI’s Sustainability of UOCAVA Balloting Solutions Subgroup, or SUBSS, and highlights trends and associated research areas in UOCAVA ballot delivery and ballot return and how to make these solutions more sustainable going forward.

“This report examines why ballot delivery and return solutions for military and overseas voters have not been as sustainable as intended for state and local election jurisdictions,” said Taylor Lansdale, OVI program manager for CSG. “Fostering UOCAVA solutions that will assist jurisdictions regardless of federal funding is critical, as is keeping pace with changing security requirements. There is a need for legislation that reflects evolving technology and jurisdictional needs and the excellent work undertaken by our OVI members in this report sets the stage for additional research in this critical area.”

The report found that a number of barriers prevent UOCAVA solutions from long-term sustainability including:

  • A relatively small customer base at the local election jurisdiction level makes them expensive on a per voter basis.
  • System maintenance costs have increased, and the complexity and lack of scalability in UOCAVA solutions preclude a one-size-fits-all approach in small jurisdictions with limited technical resources.
  • Continually evolving cybersecurity policies and procedures that impact existing solutions are difficult to implement at all levels.*
  • On-site technical resources to maintain some of these solutions is not affordable for all jurisdictions.
  • A challenge for integrating UOCAVA technologies with other voting and voter registration systems in a jurisdiction is maintaining interoperability as these solutions are upgraded and replaced.
  • The expectations of voters to have the most intuitive web-based tools and the most comprehensive information at their fingertips continues to outpace the level of change and reinvestment for election officials.

“I’m very pleased with the initial work that has gone into this report and the OVI Working Group’s view of the importance of this effort and their commitment to further study the sustainability of UOCAVA balloting solutions for delivery and return,” said FVAP Director David Beirne. “There have been many trends in UOCAVA solutions over the past several years with many new technologies being piloted and implemented by states, and this work will be critical to shaping the future of voting for military and overseas voters. I look forward to the group’s forthcoming research and case studies that will no doubt aid their election community colleagues and UOCAVA voters.”

About Overseas Voting Initiative

In 2014, The Council of State Governments launched Overseas Voting Initiative, a four-year, $3.2 million program, with the U.S. Department of Defense Federal Voting Assistance Program to improve the return rate of overseas absentee ballots. After the success of the initial program, in 2018 FVAP collaborated with CSG on a $3.9 million, five-year effort to help uniformed services personnel and other U.S. citizens overseas vote in federal elections. As part of this effort, OVI maintains a working group that examines two distinct areas pertinent to military and overseas voting: The Sustainability of UOCAVA Balloting Solutions and Data Standardization and Implementation. Through OVI, CSG continues to provide state policymakers, state and local election officials and other election community stakeholders with research and best practice guides to ensure the men and women of the U.S. military and Americans living overseas can enjoy the same right to vote as citizens living in the U.S. OVI is housed in the CSG Center of Innovation.

About The Council of State Governments

Founded in 1993, The Council of State Governments is our nation’s only organization serving all three branches of state government. CSG is a region-based forum that fosters the exchange of insights and ideas to help state officials shape public policy. This offers unparalleled regional, national and international opportunities to network, develop leaders, collaborate and create problem-solving partnerships.

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*Text revised Jan. 24, 2020