If You Make a Mistake While Voting

All Voting Systems Allow You to Correct Your Ballot

A citizen enters the voting booth
Win McNamee / Getty Images

With all the different types of voting machines now in use and requirements in effect across the United States, voters often make mistakes while voting. What happens if you change your mind while voting, or you accidentally vote for the wrong candidate?

No matter what type of voting machine you are using, carefully check your ballot to make sure you have voted as you intended to vote. As soon as you discover you have made a mistake, or if you have a problem with the voting machine, immediately ask a poll worker for help.

Get a Poll Worker to Help You

If you polling place uses paper ballots, punch card ballots or optical scan ballots, the poll worker will be able to take your old ballot and give you a new one. An election judge will either destroy your old ballot on the spot or place it in a special ballot box designated for damaged or incorrectly marked ballots. These ballots will not be counted and will be destroyed after the election has been declared official.

You Can Correct Some Voting Errors Yourself

If your polling place uses a "paperless" computerized or lever-pull voting booth, you can correct your ballot yourself. In a lever operated voting booth, simply put the one lever back where it was and pull the lever you really want. Until you pull the big lever that opens the voting booth curtain, you can continue to use the voting levers to correct your ballot.

On computerized, "touch screen" voting systems, the computer program should provide you with options for checking and correcting your ballot. You can continue to correct you ballot until you touch button on the screen saying that you have finished voting. Remember, if you have any problems or questions while voting, ask a poll worker for help.

What Are the Most Common Voting Mistakes?

  • Voting for more than one person for a single office. If you do this, your vote for that office will not be counted.
  • Not voting for the candidate you think you are voting for. This happens most often when the voting machine uses a booklet showing the voter two pages of names and offices at the same time. The names often lineup in confusing ways. Read carefully and follow the arrows printed on the pages of the booklet.
  • Not following instructions. For example, circling a candidate's name, rather than filling in the little circle next to their name. Mistakes like this can result in your vote not being counted.
  • Not voting for some offices. Going through the ballot too quickly can cause you to accidentally skip some candidates or issues you really wanted to vote for. Go slowly, and be sure to check your ballot. You are not, however, required to vote in all races or on all issues.

What About Absentee and Mail-In Voting Mistakes?

While all states now allow some form of mail-in voting, 22 states currently allow certain elections to be conducted entirely by mail. In three of those states—Oregon, Washington, and Colorado—all elections are conducted entirely by mail. 

About 1 in 5 Americans now vote absentee, or by mail, in national elections. However, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) reported that more than 250,000 absentee ballots were rejected and not counted in the 2012 midterm congressional election. Worse yet, says the EAC, the voters might never know their votes were not counted or why. And unlike mistakes made at the polling place, mistakes in mail-in voting can rarely if ever be corrected once the ballot has been mailed.

According to the EAC, the main reason mail-in ballots are rejected is that they were not returned on time. Other common, but easy to avoid mail-in voting mistakes include:

  • Forgetting to sign the ballot envelope, as required.
  • Not putting the ballot in the envelope before mailing it back.
  • Using the wrong envelope.
  • The voter had already voted in person
  • The signatures on the ballot and the envelope do not match.

While all states provide some means of correcting mistakes on mail-in ballots—usually before they are mailed—the procedures for doing so vary from state-to-state and sometimes, from county-to-county. 

Does Voting by Mail Increase Voter Turnout?

Advocated of mail-in voting argue that it increases overall voter turnout and helps voters become better informed. While the argument of higher turnout seems logical, research conducted by EAC reveals this is not always the case.

  • Mail-in voting does not increase turnout in presidential and gubernatorial general elections. In fact, turnout in mail-in only ballot precincts can be as much as 2.6 to 2.9 percentage points lower compared to turnout at walk-in polling places.
  • Voters who cast mail-in ballots are more likely to skip lower-profile or “downticket” races.
  • On the other hand, voting by mail tends to increase voter turnout in local special elections by an average of 7.6 percentage points.

According to the EAC, mail-in voting also results in lower election costs, reduced incidents of voter fraud, and fewer barriers to voting for disabled persons.