Absentee Ballot Counting
October 20, 2008 9:37 AM   Subscribe

What's the policy for opening absentee ballots? Are all ballots opened, or are they only opened when they are expected to be statistically significant?

I'm a naive college student and I'm voting absentee for the first time. I sent in my ballot yesterday, and I have to say I did appreciate the convenience and time to read over the ballot and research everything on it. However, I think I remember reading somewhere that sometimes absentee ballots are not opened when they aren't expected to be statistically significant, and that some types of ballots are opened before others.

Is this true? If so, how small a gap is too small for new ballots to be statistically insignificant? Would it only be in the case that the final result could not add up otherwise, or could votes not expected to turn the election either way be excluded based only on that prediction?

I'm sure this varies from state to state. I heard from my great aunt that they vote by absentee ballot by default in Oregon, and that other states are considering switching to voting entirely by mail. I'm interested in every state, but I'm most interested in the state I'm registered, NJ.
posted by mccarty.tim to Law & Government (10 answers total)
All votes are counted, no matter what.
posted by Class Goat at 9:46 AM on October 20, 2008

Best answer: The vote totals you see reported on election night on TV may not include absentee ballots. However, regardless of whether they're expected to be significant or not, the absentee ballots are all opened and counted. The truly official vote totals are generally released by the individual states' Secretaries of State, but that may not happen until days or weeks after the election.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:51 AM on October 20, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks. Like I said, I'm naive, but I'm glad to hear my vote will be counted.
posted by mccarty.tim at 10:04 AM on October 20, 2008

Like most things relating to voting, it depends on the state. The chief election official here in Arlington VA has gotten a little torqued at how common the belief is that absentee ballots aren't necessarily counted. Here in Virginia all ballots must be counted by law.

It's worth remembering that the vote counts you get on the day-of are preliminary counts. All election boards (to my knowledge - note above comment re: everyplace being different) take a longer time to release a certified result. Recently DC had trouble getting theirs done before the legally required date because of a voting irregularity.
posted by phearlez at 10:22 AM on October 20, 2008

I have a related question: when do they start counting absentee ballots? Are they not allowed to be opened before poll day, or are they pre-counting and opening them as received?

I think in CA they do not count all the absentee ballots if they aren't going to change the outcome (i.e. someone's really ahead already).
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:02 PM on October 20, 2008

Jen, I'm reasonably sure they count all of the absentee ballots. There are so many issues, secondary candidates, etc., you can not say all of them are too far ahead to make a difference. Secondly, every vote counts in a dozen ways. There are estimations of per cent turnouts, per cent turnouts from particular areas, from different populations. Your group will be comparatively favored or screwed over depending on how likely they are to vote.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 2:13 PM on October 20, 2008

California code section 15150: "For every election, the elections official shall conduct a semifinal official canvass by tabulating vote by mail and precinct ballots and compiling the results." [emph. mine]
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:54 PM on October 20, 2008

Also, from CalVoter.org's FAQ:

"All Vote by Mail ballots that are returned to county election offices by 8 pm on election day are counted. After the 2000 election, a popular radio talk show host suggested on air that absentee ballots in California are not counted unless the contest is close, and unfortunately this piece of misinformation ended up being repeated to the point where many people became concerned that their absentee votes had not been counted.

All votes legally cast in this state are counted, regardless of whether they were cast at the polling place or submitted via mail through the vote by mail voting process. It may take a little longer to incorporate all of the vote by mail votes into the final election results, but they are all counted.

Vote by mail ballots must be returned to county election offices and received by those offices by the time polls close (8 pm) on Election Day in order to be counted. Late-arriving vote by mail ballots are not counted (just as you would not be able to vote if you arrived at your polling place at 9 or 10 pm)."
posted by vespertine at 4:05 PM on October 20, 2008

And as to the original question, in New Jersey absentee ballots are counted on election day. New Jersey Permanent Statutes 19:57-31: "On the day of each election each county board of elections shall open in the presence of the commissioner of registration or his assistant or assistants the inner envelopes in which the absentee ballots, returned to it, to be voted in such election, are contained, except those containing the ballots which the board or the Superior Court has rejected, and shall remove from said inner envelopes the absentee ballots and shall then proceed to count and canvass the votes cast on such absentee ballots...."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:14 PM on October 20, 2008

Counting procedures vary by state. Sometimes they're done first thing in the morning, so that absentee voters may be identified and prevented from voting in person. Sometimes they're done only at the end, with in-person voters' ballots discarded before counting. Sometimes it just takes place during the day as officials have time.

There are varying, but generally strict, rules about election judges having access to the process, so that precinct workers in, say, Chicago can't just toss all the Republican ballots.

The Help America Vote Act, passed after the 2000 election and an extensive study, includes some rules standardizing this. For one thing, it eliminates some rules that prevented voters from requesting absentee ballots too early. A number of these rules directly affect servicemembers and other government employees and civilians overseas.
posted by dhartung at 11:22 PM on October 20, 2008

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