How to Decide If a Ballot Vote is Legal

If you’re a teller charged with counting ballots, we all hope that you can, at a minimum, . . . count. But let’s be clear – we also hope you know a few other very important details about balloting too – like how to determine which votes are legal and which are not.

Parliamentary procedure to the rescue.

Why Do We Care Whether a Vote is Legal?

First things first. Is vote legality even significant? Well, aside from arguments of principle, let’s just keep it practical for the very nice people who have agreed to be tellers at your convention: We care whether votes are legal because we need to know how to calculate the total votes needed for a majority.

In case I just lost you, here’s an example. Tammy Top-Notch Teller empties the ballot box and finds 12 ballots for the office of treasurer. Ten of the votes are legal, and two are not. If Tammy Top-Notch Teller is confused about what to do with illegal votes, she might:

(a) Throw the ballots with illegal votes in the trash, report that there are 10 total votes cast, and tell everyone that six is the magic number (majority) needed to win the spot of treasurer.

(b) Panic and announce that the entire election has to be redone because there were illegal votes!!

(c) Decide that legal or not, all votes should be counted because inclusiveness is what really matters in the world today.

(d) Conclude that she’s really not top-notch after all and decide to hang out at the refreshments table instead.

If you’re thinking that none of the above options is the best approach, you are a star teller in the making. Seriously, though, how in the world do you know if a vote is legal, and what do you do if you find an illegal vote in your stack of ballots?

Types of Illegal Votes

First, you need to be able to confidently put a vote in the legal or illegal category. Here’s a simple list of the types of votes that are not legal:

But be careful, because misspellings that you can decipher do not count as unintelligible. If someone writes in John Willie-Wonka as John Willy-Wacca, chances are you know which guy they meant to vote for.

And, if the vote is questionable but not completely unintelligible – like it might be for Bobbie but it could maybe be for Bonnie – there’s a special protocol to follow. That’s a post for another day.

  • Votes for Ineligible Candidates – I know you think Elton John is the best ever. But if he’s not a member of your organization, he just can’t be president. Votes cast for him are illegal. So sorry.
  • Votes for Too Many Candidates – Fran Friends-with-Everyone can only mark one choice for VP. If she puts an X next to every VP candidate, her VP vote is illegal.
  • Ballots Folded Together – If you find two ballots folded together and both marked for Trickster Tom, follow your gut and put those ballots in the illegal stack. They count as one illegal vote. Note, though, that both ballots have to be filled out for them to get the illegal label. If one is blank, Trickster Tom is in the clear and gets one vote.

What to Do With Illegal Votes

Once you have two stacks – legal votes and illegal votes – there’s an easy rule about what to do with the illegal ones: Count them in the total number of votes cast, but do not count them toward any specific choice. So in the example above, Tammy Top-Notch Teller should have calculated the number needed for a majority from 12, not 10. The two illegal votes get counted in the total number of votes cast—they just don’t get credited to any one person’s efforts to become treasurer.

One final note: Votes cast by people not entitled to vote aren’t counted at all. So yes, that means if Elton John shows up and votes, it doesn’t get counted, unless he is a member. Even if he is the best ever.