What to Do If You Make a Mistake While Voting

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 ensure that you have voted as you intended to. As soon as you discover 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 your polling place uses paper, punch-card, 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.

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 your ballot until you touch the button on the screen that says you have finished voting. If you have any problems or questions while voting, ask a poll worker for help.

Common Mistakes

One common error is voting for more than one person for a single office. If you do this, your vote for that office will not be counted. Other errors include:

  • Voting for the incorrect candidate. 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 line up in confusing ways. Read carefully and follow the arrows printed on the pages of the booklet.
  • Not following instructions, such as 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 check your ballot.

Note that you are not required to vote in all races or on all issues.

Absentee and Mail-In Voting Mistakes

The National Conference of State Legislators says that all states allow voters to request ballots in advance for the 2020 presidential election and send in those ballots by mail. Indeed, 29 states and the District of Columbia permit voters to cast their ballots by mail without the requirement to document an excuse, and five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington—conduct elections largely, though not compelety, by mail.

Not surprisingly, voting by mail was expected to take a prominent role in the 2020 election where "at least three-quarters of all American voters (would) be eligible to receive a ballot in the mail," The New York Times said. And nearly 21% of Americans were expected to take advantage of current rules and vote absentee, or by mail, in the election, according to the Pew Research Center.

However, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) reported that more than 594,000 absentee ballots were rejected and not counted in the 2018 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 voting mistakes include:

  • The signature on the ballot does not match the one on file
  • Forgetting to sign your ballot
  • Failing to obtain a witness signature

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?

Advocates 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 the 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 down-ballot 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.

2022 Could See More Errors

Accidental voting errors may become more common in the 2022 midterm elections and going forward as legislators in at least 33 states have proposed new laws restricting who will legally be allowed to vote and how their votes are cast.

This move to tighten voting laws sprang from largely unproven claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. In 2020, more than 100 million Americans voted by mail or voted early in-person to avoid the Election Day crush at the polls. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many states modified their laws to make voting safer and more accessible, triggering an avalanche of mail-in ballots and early voting. Nearly two-thirds of the 2020 electorate—101,453,111 voters in all—cast their ballots by mail or by voting early in person. Overall turnout hit a record of nearly 160 million, according to the U.S Elections Project. The voter participation rate of 66.7% of eligible voters in 2020 was the best since 1900.

Common examples of voter fraud include casting more than one ballot per voter, voting or registering to vote under the names of deceased persons, and claiming to be another person when voting or registering.

While expanded vote by mail and early voting rules might seem to encourage voter fraud, research by the progressive law and policy institute Brennan Center for Justice has found that “The consensus from credible research and investigation is that the rate of illegal voting is extremely rare, and the incidence of certain types of fraud—such as impersonating another voter—is virtually nonexistent.”

Disturbed by Joe Biden’s unexpected defeat of Donald Trump in a half dozen battleground states, Republican-controlled legislatures in swing states like Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and thirty more have introduced or proposed laws to eliminate or curtail absentee mail voting, to stiffen photo ID requirements, to require proof of citizenship, and to ban the convenience of motor voter and election day voter registration.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 55.8% of all Americans are now fully vaccinated and COVID-19 case numbers are dropping significantly. As a result, states must decide whether to drop, retain, or expand their temporary absentee and mail-in ballot rules for their future elections. Such changes, now not likely to go into effect until mere months before the 2022 elections are expected to contribute to voter frustration and confusion.

View Article Sources
  1. Voting Outside the Polling Place: Absentee, All-Mail and Other Voting at Home Options, ncsl.org.

  2. Hartig, Hannah, et al. “As States Move to Expand the Practice, Relatively Few Americans Have Voted by Mail.” Pew Research Center, 24 June 2020.

  3. All-Mail Voting.” Ballotpedia.

  4. Love, Juliette, et al. “Where Americans Can Vote by Mail in the 2020 Elections.” The New York Times, 11 Aug. 2020.

  5. Election Administration and Voting Survey: 2018 Comprehensive Report, A Report the 116th Congress. U.S. Election Assistance Commission, June 2019.

  6. Gronke, Paul and Miller, Peter. “Voting by Mail and Turnout in Oregon: Revisiting Southwell and Burchett - Paul Gronke, Peter Miller, 2012.” SAGE Journals, vo. 40, No. 6, 1 No. 2012, pp. 976-997, doi:10.1177/1532673X12457809.

  7. Kousser, Thad and Mullin, Megan. “Will Vote-by-Mail Elections Increase Participation? Evidence from California Counties.” U.S. Elections Assistance Commission, 23 Feb. 2017.

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Longley, Robert. "What to Do If You Make a Mistake While Voting." ThoughtCo, Jan. 2, 2022, thoughtco.com/mistake-while-voting-3322085. Longley, Robert. (2022, January 2). What to Do If You Make a Mistake While Voting. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/mistake-while-voting-3322085 Longley, Robert. "What to Do If You Make a Mistake While Voting." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/mistake-while-voting-3322085 (accessed October 2, 2022).