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How to Hand-count Votes Marked on Paper Ballots

Report by Teresa Hommel

April 9, 2004

Most Americans do not have experience with hand-counting the votes on paper ballots.  This report presents some examples of how it is done in Canada and in New York City.


How many ballots were received at the polling place?

How many ballots were used?

How many voters voted?

When the ballots are printed, they are in pads of 25 or 50 or 100. Each sheet of paper in the pad consists of a ballot and a stub. A ballot gets torn off its stub when the ballot is given to a voter.

Each stub is individually numbered with a unique serial number. (The ballots do not have serial numbers.) Records are kept to show what serial numbers are delivered to each polling place.  For example, a polling place that receives 300 ballots might have serial numbers 901 through 1200.

Upon receiving the ballots, a polling official counts them to verify that the polling place has received the correct quantity of ballots, and that the serial numbers are correct according to what was supposed to be received. For example, if a pad is supposed to have 100 ballots, the polling official makes sure that it has 100, and not 99 or 101.

The polling official also prepares each ballot by writing his or her initials in a designated place on the back of each ballot.

Before voting begins, everyone looks into the ballot box to make sure it is empty.

When a voter arrives at the polling place, the voter's name is looked for in the list of registered voters. If the voter's name is found, a polling official tears off a ballot from a pad, folds the ballot correctly with the side for marking votes on the inside and the polling official's initials on the outside. Then the polling official hands the folded ballot to the voter.

The voter goes into a booth and marks the ballot by pencil or pen.

After marking the ballot, the voter folds it again so that the votes are on the inside and the polling official's initials are on the outside.  The voter hands the ballot to the polling official.  The polling official checks his or her initials, finds the voter's name on the voter list, and marks a line through the voter's name to indicate that this voter has voted.  In some elections the ballot is handed back to the voter, who places it into the ballot box in front of the polling official.

More frequently the polling official places the ballot into the ballot box while the voter watches.

When the polling place is closed at the end of the day, the ballot boxes are opened and the ballots are counted. Everyone looks into the ballot box to make sure that it is empty and all ballots have been taken out.

The number of voted ballots must be exactly the same as the number of voters' names that were crossed with a line on the voter list. Also, the number of ballots used must be exactly the same as the number of ballots that were removed from their stubs on the ballot pads. Sometimes there is a spoiled ballot that was removed from a pad but not placed in the ballot box, or you might have two ballots that stick together and no one notices until the counting of ballots later, but polling officials must account for all ballots that have been removed from their stubs on the pads.

Canadians have people called "Scrutineers" who observe and assist in elections. One Scrutineer from each party may observe and participate in the procedures in each polling place.

A Scrutineer with 30 years experience in elections was asked, "What if the number of ballots in the ballot box doesn't match the number voters' names crossed in the voter list, or what if the number of ballots removed from the pads is not the same as the number of ballots in the ballot box plus the spoiled ballots?" The reply was, "It's never happened in my experience."

Counting Paper Ballots

It is possible that a different vote-counting method may be used in different Canadian elections.  Below are three different methods.

1. Example 1, Piles of Ballots

Suppose the election involves races for mayor and city council.  The ballots would be counted twice, once for each race.

Suppose there are three candidates for mayor, named A, B, and C.  The paper ballots are separated into three piles, one pile with the ballots marked for candidate A, one for B, and one for C.  Then the paper ballots in each pile are counted, and the tally sheet is filled in with the final tally for each candidate for mayor.

Suppose, next, there are five candidates for city council.  The paper ballots are separated again, this time into five piles, one pile for each candidate for city council.  Then the paper ballots in each pile are counted, and the tally sheet is filled in with the final tally for each candidate for city council.

To summarize, for each race the paper ballots are physically placed into separate piles--one pile for each candidate--and then the ballots in each pile are counted.

This method is very fast.  An estimate for the time required to count 300 ballots with ten races and an average of five candidates per race is two and a half hours.

2. Example 2, Tally Sheet with Rows of Squares

In this vote counting method, each Scrutineer has a tally sheet with rows of squares to be used for counting the votes for each candidate.

This kind of tally sheet is large--perhaps 17 by 22 inches (the size of four sheets of ordinary typing paper). The tally sheet has the name of each candidate in large print, followed by perhaps 20 rows of squares.  If each row has 50 squares and there are 20 rows, there are 1000 squares for each candidate's name. To make counting easier, the vertical line that separates the boxes is wider after every fifth square.

A polling official goes through the ballots one at a time.  He or she holds each ballot so everyone can see it, and reads aloud the names of the candidates selected on the ballot.  For each vote for a specific candidate, theScrutineers mark "X" in one box for that candidate.

After all ballots have been processed like this, the number of votes for each candidate is determined by the number of "X" marks for the candidate.

3. Example 3, Tally Strokes (also called Pencil Strokes)

This method is for small elections where there will be relatively few ballots, races, or candidates.

A pencil stroke is a mark that a person makes with a pencil on paper.  For each five pencil strokes, the first four are vertical lines which look like the letter "l" or the number "1".  The fifth pencil stroke is made at an angle across the first four, to create a grouping of five.

Each Scrutineer has a tally sheet with the candidates' names, and several blank lines following the name of each candidate.  For each candidate there is also a "total box" where the total count of votes for that candidate must be filled in.

A polling official reads aloud the names of the candidates selected on each ballot.  For each vote for a candidate, the Scrutineers make a pencil stroke on a line following that candidate's name.

After all the ballots are read, the total number of pencil strokes for each candidate is written in the "total box" for that candidate.

4. Counting 100 ballots at a time

For some elections, the ballots may be counted in batches of 100. One of the above counting methods, or some other counting method, may be used with the batches.

The batches are created as the ballots are taken out of the ballot box. At this time the ballots are separated into batches of 100 and each batch is put into a separate large envelop. The last batch would probably have fewer than 100 ballots. For example, if there are 250 ballots, there would be three envelops with 100, 100, and 50 ballots, respectively.

The votes in each batch are counted. After counting, a polling official puts the ballots back into their envelop and writes the tallies for that batch on the outside of the envelop.

The use of small batches can make the counting easier.


Reporting the Final Tallies

After the votes have been counted, a polling official writes the final vote tallies on a form called the Statement of Poll. The Statement of Poll is signed by two different polling officials who have conducted the election and the counting of votes.

Several Statement of Poll forms may have to be created and signed because one is returned to the central elections office and in addition each Scrutineer must receive one. For example, if there are three major candidates, each polling place may have three Scrutineers, one representing each candidate.  Each Scrutineer gets a signed Statement of Poll which they deliver to the office of the candidate they are supporting.

New York

New York City uses lever machines, but every poll worker is trained to know the procedures for using paper ballots. These paper ballots are "scannable" which means they have an oval next to each candidate's name. The voter uses a pencil or pen (but not a felt-tipped marker) to blacken-in the oval next to the candidate of their choice.  These ballots can be counted by hand, and they also can be "scanned" and counted by an optical scanner machine.

Paper ballots are used in two circumstances, as emergency ballots and as affidavit ballots. The ballot is the same in both cases. The circumstances and procedures under which the ballots are used, and the envelops in which they are placed, are different.

First, if a lever machine breaks down, voters use paper ballots called emergency ballots. Each Election District has approximately 750 voters, and uses one or two lever machines; one of those lever machines has a supply of 300 of emergency ballots in the storage space in back of the machine. If more emergency ballots are needed, a poll worker calls the Board of Elections and more ballots are sent immediately via a car service.

If an emergency ballot is used, the voter marks his or her choices, folds the ballot, and places the ballot into a cardboard ballot box.

An affidavit ballot is used if there is a problem with a voter's registration, such as when a voter's name is incorrect or missing in the voter registration book. Each affidavit ballot is individually sealed in an envelope, and stored together with other affidavit ballots for handling and counting by the Board of Elections.

New York state has 150 Assembly Districts. In a given election, the number of affidavit ballots used in an Assembly District might number in the hundreds or thousands, but ordinarily would not reach ten thousand. The number of emergency ballots cast is typically less.

In the March 2, 2004, primary election, in the 66th Assembly District, 716 affidavit ballots and about 300 emergency ballots were cast.

Counting Emergency Ballots Using Tally Strokes (also called Pencil Strokes)

Each Election District has a tally sheet for emergency ballots; these ballots must be counted at the polling place before being returned to the Board of Elections.

The counting procedure is conducted by two poll workers called Inspectors, and may be observed by "poll watchers" who are outside observers designated by the political parties of the candidates.

Each race, such as "Mayor" or "City Council," is listed on the tally sheet. For each race, the candidates are listed on separate lines. There are two boxes next to each candidate's name, one for pencil strokes and one for the total count of pencil strokes. One pencil stroke is marked for each vote for the candidate.

An Inspector opens the emergency ballot box, unfolds each ballot, and places the ballots face down on the table in one pile.

One Inspector reads aloud all the votes cast on each ballot.

An Inspector from the other party records each vote on the tally sheet with one pencil stroke per vote.

The total of all pencil strokes for each candidate is counted and written into the proper box on the tally sheet.

The emergency ballots are placed in a large "emergency ballot envelop," and the count of those ballots is written on the envelop.

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commented 2013-12-24 13:54:05 -0600 · Flag
Thank you
@iconik2333 tweeted link to this page. 2012-02-06 09:05:29 -0600 (How to Count Paper Ballots, by Theresa Hommel)
published this page in Elements of a Hand-Count 2011-10-12 17:40:14 -0500