Election 2020 in Review: Poll Watchers, Observers and the Ballot Duplication Process

Definition of ballot duplication

Before the November 2020 election, the Overseas Voting Initiative anticipated an increase in absentee/by-mail ballots throughout the country, and the corresponding necessity for election jurisdictions to examine their ballot tabulation processes. In a series of articles, published between July and September the ballot duplication (or transcription) process in states was assessed.

All states allow poll watchers or observers access to some parts of the election process, and many states permit these individuals to be present during tabulation processes, including ballot duplication/transcription. In the midst of a global pandemic, states were faced with the question of how to allow the public or authorized observers access to tabulation processes while still maintaining social distancing and keeping election officials and observers safe. This September 23, 2020 article highlighted some of the ways states were planning on dealing with this issue, including streaming tabulation processes online and providing more space to process ballots. Now that a very challenging election is over, this article analyzes what worked and what could be improved in the realm of observing ballot tabulation processes.

As members of the Overseas Voting Initiative’s working group reflected on how they handled election observation of the ballot duplication process, several ideas emerged.  

  • For remote observation, in which the ballot duplication and other ballot tabulation processes are streamed online:
    • Require those who want to observe remotely to provide their name, address, and other information and to accept conditions/guidelines for remote observation (like Orange County, CA did here).
    • Track Internet Service Providers (ISPs) of those observing remotely so that if someone illegally takes a screen shot of a ballot or otherwise abuses their rights as an observer, they can be identified for possible investigation and penalty.
    • Keep recordings of the process to combat misinformation. If there is a manipulated or misunderstood video circulating, use the original to combat the false narrative.
    • Livestreams should have some context, whether it is a voice-over of what is happening as ballots are being processed, on-screen text explaining the process, or both. Livestreams could contain “pop-up” messages periodically explaining the process.
  • For in-person observation of ballot duplication/transcription processes:
    • Create a dedicated “ballot duplication” area with signs that describe the process and what is happening to give observers context for what they are seeing.
    • Explain the entire process and lay out expectations for what observers will be seeing ahead of time.
    • Provide observers with handouts that explain the process. 
    • Speak with observers frequently and do a “tip of the hour” to explain more about the process.

Although 2020 was an extraordinary year requiring adaptations and quick thinking, many of the processes that election officials put in place for remote and in-person observation of tabulation processes will likely be useful in the future as well.

Election 2020 in Review: Ballot Duplication in the News

Definition of ballot duplication

With the November 3, 2020 election in the nation’s rearview mirror, it is time to examine some of the challenges that affected military and overseas ballots the Overseas Voting Initiative (OVI) discussed in the lead up to the presidential election.

One such topic is ballot duplication. In the coming weeks, the OVI will examine:

  • noteworthy instances of ballot duplication that occurred last fall;
  • implementation of new automated ballot duplication systems and how they fared;
  • in-person and remote observation of ballot duplication and post-election processes during the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions; and
  • ideas for improvement to the ballot duplication process going forward.

Last summer, the OVI issued a series of articles regarding ballot duplication and providing timely recommendations for election officials to consider in 2020. It was anticipated that the pandemic would result in an increase in the use of absentee, by mail and other ballots cast outside of polling places. This, in turn, would necessitate an increase in duplication.

In fact, the topic of ballot duplication was discussed frequently by election officials and in the media as voting procedures were a focus of post-election analysis.

Election officials across the country, including those in Montgomery County, Maryland, Marin County, California, and San Joaquin County, California, proactively shared information  with their communities and the media on their processes for duplicating damaged or otherwise machine-unreadable ballots prior to November 3, 2020. The Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) even highlighted the ballot duplication process preemptively – and cited the OVI’s article series – in its highly-referenced “Rumor Control” website explaining that, “In some circumstances, elections officials are permitted to “duplicate” or otherwise further mark cast ballots to ensure they can be properly counted.

Despite the diligent work by election officials and others to explain the nature and purpose of ballot duplication, the topic was still a subject of considerable misinformation and disinformation [1] post-election. For example, officials in Delaware County, Pennsylvania were forced to debunk manipulated video of their ballot duplication process and City of Detroit election officials testified about the process to their state senate.

Perhaps most notably, Maricopa County, Arizona authorities worked to explain and combat ballot duplication misinformation and disinformation that quickly spread on social media. This was focused on proper vs. improper methods for marking paper ballots and concerns about whether these ballots would be counted. This became known as “Sharpiegate.” It was featured in CISA’s Rumor Control site, again referencing the OVI series on ballot duplication.

Additionally, there were stories about jurisdictions utilizing the ballot duplication process for ballots affected by the following notable circumstances:

  • Ballots with Printing Errors – In Tarrant County, Texas, election workers had to duplicate one-third of the jurisdiction’s absentee ballots due to a printing error that rendered bar codes illegible on approximately 20,000 ballots. Ballots in Outagamie County, Wisconsin contained a misprint visible in a black square — known as a timing mark — near the edge of the ballots. The misprint necessitated the duplication of 13,500 ballots so ballot machines could read them accurately.
  • Burned and Water Damaged Ballots – 2020 saw ballot drop boxes set on fire in Boston and Los Angeles. In Boston, there were 122 ballots inside the drop box when it was set on fire, only 87 of which were legible and able to be counted, though it is likely some fire-damaged ballots required duplication to go through ballot scanners. In Los Angeles, another ballot drop box fire resulted in over 200 damaged ballots left in a seared, soggy pile. Election officials had to sift through these to see what could be saved, again, likely using ballot duplication procedures. In both instances, voters whose ballots were not able to be saved received replacement ballots.
  • Braille and Large Print Ballots – Election jurisdictions offer a variety of assistance and services to aid voters with accessibility challenges. In some jurisdictions, like counties throughout Arizona, Braille and large print ballots are offered to voters. Prior to the November 3 election, Maricopa County election officials received requests for 26 Braille ballots and 555 large print ballots, all of which needed to be duplicated upon return before they could be counted. While duplication of Braille and large print ballots was not new in 2020, extensive discussion of it was.

The next article in this series will cover how ballot duplication and other post-election processes were viewed by both in-person and remote election observers while dealing with physical distancing, building capacity restrictions, and other COVID-19 restrictions.


[1] Misinformation is false information that one spreads because they believe it to be true. Disinformation is false information that one spreads even though they know it to be false. The difference between the two is intent.

Election officials are planning for remote observation of post-election processes, including ballot duplication, due to COVID-19 pandemic

Definition of ballot duplication

This is an extraordinary year for election officials in many ways. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more voters will be voting by absentee or mail ballots rather than risk going into a crowded polling place. State laws on who can vote by absentee or mail ballot varies, but every election official in the country will see more absentee or mail ballots than typical. This will mean an uptick in the number of ballots that may need to be duplicated (or transcribed) before they can be sent through ballot tabulating equipment. See the first blog in our series on ballot duplication for more details on this process.

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Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers) About Ballot Duplication

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A presidential election draws significantly more voters than a midterm or local election, resulting in more ballots to count. With expanded for vote-by-mail and no-excuse absentee voting, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant increase in the number of ballots marked outside of the tightly controlled environment of a physical polling place.

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Continued Advancement in Ballot Duplication Technology Solutions: Pilots in the Field

Types of ballot duplication technology described in text

In this post, we’ll provide a general overview of the ballot duplication technology landscape and its innovation since OVI began to research this topic in 2016. We’ll then briefly highlight a local jurisdiction’s first use of ballot duplication technology in 2018 and how this advancement has proven helpful in processing their damaged or otherwise machine-unreadable ballots prior to counting.

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Ballot Duplication Technology: What Is It and How Does It Work?

How Ballot Duplication Technology Works

Our first post in this series on ballot duplication served as an explainer to demystify this term, which refers to the process used to transcribe a damaged or unreadable ballot so that it can be counted.

In our second blog post, we shared the Overseas Voting Initiative’s (OVI) latest recommendations for ballot duplication in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this post, we will define ballot duplication technology solutions and give a general overview of how these solutions work.

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Contingency Planning During COVID-19: Ballot Duplication in the States

Definition of ballot duplication

Throughout our blog series on ballot duplication, the Overseas Voting Initiative (OVI) has asserted that elections conducted during the coronavirus pandemic will likely yield a higher volume of ballots returned via mail or other methods.

As state primaries have come to a close, this assertion has often proven to be true. In the West Virginia presidential primary alone, slightly more than half of the state’s 436,000 votes were returned by mail. According to West Virginia Secretary of State Andrew “Mac” Warner, this constitutes a roughly 47% increase from previous presidential primaries.

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

Ballot Duplication Recommendations: Recommendations are in text

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.

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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.

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