Suppose in an anonymous voting system, we have a bag of 100 legitimate votes soon to be counted. Unfortunately, before the 100 legitimate votes reach the the counting table, a man in a bandit mask and wearing a black and white striped shirt steals in, drops a single unauthorized vote in the bag, mixes it up, cackles maniacally, and runs away. Now the bag contains 100 legitimate votes, and one illegitimate ballot, but nobody knows which is which.

Solutions are proposed:

  • Those who believe that no illegitimate vote must ever be tolerated argue that the bag should be burned, since its count was spoiled.

  • Others believe ruining 100 votes to prevent 1 bad ballot is too extreme, and just as the FDA regards small amounts of filth as unavoidable in commercial food processing it would be better to let that 1 ballot pass. But for general cases they can't agree what on the healthiest ratio to limit contamination is.

Are the 50 US state's policies on similar problems uniform, or do different states opt for different solutions? Do other nations have relevant policies?

Extra: explanations and justifications for such policies are OK, but should address the policies limits or theoretical limits, (if any). That is, suppose the bag was very large, (and the ballots were tiny), and contained 1,000,000 legitimate ballots, and one bad one; as well as the opposite case, a bag with one legitimate ballot, and 1,000,000 fraudulent ones...

Note: if that's too abstract, here's an equivalent real-life illustration:

In 2021, people advocating for stricter voter-ID laws, claim to fear that similarly minuscule risks of contamination are tantamount to an immense and virulent fraud, a calamitous voting hygeine emergency necessitating massive preventative suppression. Allowing their premise, (for the sake of argument let's naively suppose it's completely and dangerously true), how far would its advocates take such arguments -- what is their most minimal possible condition to morally justify any given larger degree of suppression?

IOW, for c contaminated votes, then let p be the coefficient of c, (e.g. c*p), indicating how many suspect voters must be suppressed and inconvenienced. What function should be used to compute p?

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    Is this under a sensible auditing system where we know which 100 voters votes were in the bag beforehand?
    – origimbo
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 6:27
  • 1
    Regarding in-person voting (which you seem to be describing), are there any places in the US that are NOT tallying votes in real time on location? Perhaps it is my erroneous understanding, but the vast majority (if not all) in-person voting locations are "counting" votes in real time.
    – BobE
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 15:11
  • @origimbo, Let's assume the worst case, and suppose nobody knows whose votes these are, just that 100 are legit, and one is not.
    – agc
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 10:00
  • @BobE, This is not describing in-person voting, or at least not a system in which those votes are counted in real time.
    – agc
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 10:02
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    In most of the world, the electoral commission would tally the votes and say “the winner had a 5123-vote margin, there are 345 contested ballots, therefore the contested votes are immaterial and the winner is proclaimed”. Or “the winner had a 30863-vote margin, there are 77926 contested ballots, the election must be redone” — as happened in the second round of the 2016 Austrian presidential election. Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 18:47

6 Answers 6


This abstract scenario could only occur in a system that is ripe for abuse. Now, despite there being regulations to prevent abuse, how well those regulations are followed, and how "ripe" many state and municipal processes are might be a matter for debate.

In almost any voting system, there are laws, rules and regulation for maintaining the security of the ballots or records, and keeping a chain of custody log. For example -

Questions about the authenticity of ballots arose during the 2011 Supreme Court recount process due to holes in some ballot bags, gaps in their closure or issues with security tags. A hole in a ballot bag or a missing security tag is not enough evidence alone to discard the ballots inside. The ability to put a hand into a ballot bag is not by itself evidence of fraud.....

... After the polls close, election workers print out a tape which lists the tabulated vote totals. The poll workers remove the voted ballots and place them into a secured container or bag. The bag is secured using a tamper evident numbered seal. Ballot containers have all potential openings secured in such a manner that no ballot may be removed, nor any ballot added, without visible interference or damage to that ballot container. The seal number is recorded on the Inspectors’ Statement and Ballot Container Certificate by the poll workers. Election officials are required to maintain a chain of custody record that documents the movement and location of election ballots from the time of delivery of the ballots to the municipal clerk or board of election commissioners until the destruction of the ballots is authorized under § 7.23 Wis. Stats.

Even if the container or bag is somehow opened later, or if the chain of custody is broken, election officials have the original print-out tape from the machine, as well as the electronic memory device from the machine. This enables election officials to determine the election night vote count.

Wisconsin Elections Commission: Authenticity of Ballots and Responsibility for Conducting Recounts

If they had a verified machine count, and taped printout of each and every vote, and then they witnessed the contents being tampered with in that way, and a hand-verification of the contents showed a discrepancy of one vote/ballot, they'd be able to use the original recount, in all probability.

When doing a recount, if the seals appeared tampered with or the control numbers do not match the logs, they are supposed to consider that container to be "spoiled," and not include the counts, though in the past, they've chose to accept those situations as minor, malice-less human error, rather than deal with the scandal of an election being possibly tampered with. Again, a Wisconsin example -

Kloppenburg's campaign has raised questions about torn ballot bags in Waukesha County. But Geske said a rip in a ballot bag would not be enough for a court to throw out the votes in that bag without more evidence to draw a reasonable inference that fraud had been committed.

Keep in mind, the combination of a partisan county clerk "finding" thousands of votes after initial reporting, and the ballot bags not being securely sealed, from that same county during the recount, were not enough to have ballots disallowed. It seems like you'd have to have someone dressed like a villain being seen to tamper with a bag to actually cause action.

Initially, Kloppenburg appeared to defeat Prosser by 204 votes. Two days after the election, Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus announced she had not included about 14,300 votes from Brookfield, 76% of them for Prosser, in the initial tally she gave to the news media.

Wisconsin State Journal Archive: Prosser wins recount in Wisconsin Supreme Court race

In terms of at what point a bag of ballots would be deemed to be "spoiled," I think that would depend on whether a bag was outside the chain of custody, and the seal(s) compromised, and just found in that condition, in which case you'd have no way of verifying that the count was valid, and, if election fraud was going on, a matching vote-tape from a machine would just be a circular "verification." In a formal recount, I'd think the bag would have to be disallowed, entirely, because, a dozen other ballots or ten thousand, any or all of the ballots would be questionable. But, that's under an ideal and strict standard. As already shown, the scandal of having that happen in an election causes those overseeing verification to dismiss or hand-wave problems with safeguards of ballot authenticity.

If we had your scenario where someone inserting a single ballot was seen, but we couldn't tell which one it was, as long as the rest of the security procedures were in place and verifiable, none of the ballots would be considered "spoiled," because a single illegitimate vote would still be within the standards for margin of error, both machine and human, of a normal recount or verification. Therefore, throwing in one illegitimate ballot into the election mix would not have an actual statistical impact. That single vote would not be worth nullifying others, and, indeed, the visible nature of such a crime might indicate that this would be the goal/reason for the insertion of that ballot.

This is the same reason why voter impersonation fraud, statistically, does not exist. There is almost zero impact in terms of altering an election.

  • This has good background information, but it doesn't specifically address the question, particularly its moral aspects -- that is, assuming the premise, is it better not to count 100 good votes to prevent a single bad vote from being counted?
    – agc
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 10:28
  • 3
    @agc - the moral aspects take us into the "primarily opinion-based" territory that is frowned upon, and, I think, people generally feel I'm a bit too free with inserting my opinions, as it is. Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 16:44
  • 1
    @agc the question in its current form asks about what policies exist, not for a moral evaluation of those policies. You could ask a new question like "what arguments exist on either side for this issue?" but I would advise against editing this question to include such aspects. Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 16:45
  • @agc - added some verbiage to address your concerns, trying to avoid too much right/wrong and focusing instead on impact. Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 16:52

Are the 50 US state's policies on similar problems uniform, or do different states opt for different solutions? Do other nations have relevant policies?

In precisely the scenario of the OP or a similar one, almost every U.S. state would count all of the votes in the bag, and then try to prosecute the illegal voter for fraud.

Overall there is great diversity between how each state, and often, how different counties within a state, administer elections, but in this particular scenario there wouldn't be much of a difference.

Most nations have uniform national election administration systems supervised by a non-partisan election administration agency (in contrast to the highly fragmented U.S. system). But, I suspect, most would likewise count all the votes and try to prosecute the illegal voter, rather than invalidating legal votes.

Some countries might allow a revote as a remedy if the election ultimately came down to one vote in this scenario.

  • The US is the only democracy I've heard of where invalidating the vote isn't an option. In most of the world, the electoral commission would tally the votes and say “the winner had a 5123-vote margin, there are 345 contested ballots, therefore the contested votes are immaterial and the winner is proclaimed”. Or “the winner had a 30863-vote margin, there are 77926 contested ballots, the election must be redone” — as happened in the second round of the 2016 Austrian presidential election. Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 18:44
  • @Gilles'SO-stopbeingevil' The U.S. election administration system is also set up so that contests must be raised before a ballot ends up in the bag (e.g. with provisional balloting). So, timely contested ballots are generally resolved on the merits. Untimely disputes are waived in a quasi-adversarial process.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 20:50
  1. Whether it is better to count all the votes to avoid including any fraudulent votes or better to not count any of the votes to avoid counting any fraudulent votes is opinion-based.
  2. Many who participate in such discussions will change their opinion based on how the vote is expected to count. I.e. the Republicans arguing not to count votes in a Democratic county may have argued in favor of counting all the votes in a Republican county. And the Democrats arguing to count the votes may have argued against counting votes in a Republican county.
  3. In a particular situation, the incentives may be different.

For example, in Democratic Broward county in Florida, election workers opened 205 ballots, of which 22 had been contested by the Republicans. This creates a situation where they can't tell which are the 183 unquestioned ballots and which are the 22 contested ballots. Since the election workers were most likely Democrats, not counting any of the ballots would have punished the people who either deliberately or accidentally mixed the ballots together. Being punished that way, may encourage better behavior in the future. Meanwhile, counting all those ballots would effectively reward the bad behavior. Rewarded behavior is more likely to appear in the future.

Democrats are all for that principle in some other situations. For example, the exclusionary rule releases criminals back into society. But it punishes law enforcement (by releasing said criminals back into society), even at the cost of collateral damage (future crimes by the same criminals who would have been imprisoned). Democrats generally favor the exclusionary rule.

We could try to balance things in the current situation. One hundred valid ballots outweigh one invalid ballot. But consider what happens in the future. The behavior is rewarded this time. So next time, they mix a hundred invalid ballots with two hundred valid ballots. That flips around the balance. Now it's 101 invalid ballots (current and future) versus 100 valid ballots (current). Because if the system punishes at one ballot, the people who made the mistake will realize that they need to be more careful in the future.

Of course, we normally don't know how many future ballots there will be. This leads to a situation where one side expresses worry about the system, as worrying about the system leads to the short term result that they want. The other side worries about the current situation, as just thinking about the current situation leads to the situation that they want.

This may be exacerbated if this also plays into the parties' natural prejudices. The left wing is more worried about current injustice. The right wing is more worried about future failures. That's part of the basic definitions of the two viewpoints.

  • 1
    A useful answer showing one sort of right wing perspective. The assertion that what's better is "opinion based" might benefit from more support -- certainly some partisans think (and act) that way, but the actions of warring partisans are not in of themselves proof of the non-existence of some form of morality less subjective than theirs.
    – agc
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 5:37
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    Re the verb "punish" -- it's unclear how punishing the voters for the miscalculations of election boards differs from punishing depositors and investors for the accounting errors of bankers. It seems unwise to punish the victims for the crimes of the perps.
    – agc
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 6:09

One also has to remember that the charges of vote fraud are limited to a few areas. Most notably, Florida, which has had trouble with vote handling in the past (the 2000 election). Normally, sloppy voting handling isn't an issue unless a national election is close and the presidency is dependent upon Florida's electoral votes... as it was in 2000.

The answer is to get Florida to update its voting processes to match states that do not have this issue.

To show how antiquated some of the methods can be: at least as of 2000, Florida was still using punch cards, which were discontinued in the early 1980's for just about every other form of data storage.

This is 2018. We have the technology to handle the nation's votes safely and accurately. The problem is getting the individual states to adopt those methods.

  • 1
    "In 2007, Florida passed a law that requires counties to use paper ballots instead of touchscreen voting machines used in many states. Then Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican who has since switched his party affiliation to Democrat and now serves in Congress, championed the move, saying the optical scanners allow more of a paper trail. [ tcpalm.com/story/news/politics/elections/2018/11/12/… m]
    – BobE
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 22:14
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    However note that the optical scanners used in Palm County has "software" that requires the ballot be rescanned for each individual office, thus to machine recount for Sen, Gov and Ag Comm, each ballot has to be scanned three times !
    – BobE
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 22:19

Since the poster's comments on another answer imply they are interested in the moral aspects of the question, I'll bite and say that the moral imperative is on the loser to push for the votes to be counted (assuming they haven't) if the margin of victory is less than 100, and on the winner to push for them not to be counted. Everything else is a procedural question, and if this kind of failure is plausible, you're doing things wrong.

On that front, the answer to this in an eclectic list of countries is to number the ballot papers, so that the voting system is only strictly one way anonymous. I've never been sure if that implies they trust their government more or less than countries which don't do this.

  • Thanks for considering this aspect of the question. Please elaborate on where the "moral imperative" comes from. It seems questionable in what regard the supposed "winner" is truly the winner here, or the "loser" the actual loser. That sort of strategic partisanship seems to be the polar opposite of patriotism.
    – agc
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 5:17
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    @agc If you want it in patriotic language, each side considers their candidate to be best for the country and counts aren't accurate to the level of one vote, while elections aren't typically accurate measures of the will of the people within 100 votes.
    – origimbo
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 22:56

As I now understand the hypothetical situation posed by the OP and his comments, the scenario proposed excludes in-person voting (where tabulation occurs in real time).

Ballots that would be tabulated after the fact consist of provisional ballots and absentee ballots. In both provisional ballots and absentee ballots the ballots are sealed in an envelope that identifies the voter and in the case of provisional ballots an election worker must write the reason for the provisional ballot and sign-off.

So the "bandit" places a ballot into a box/bag/container, that ballot would be identifiable by the election officials.

In short, the hypothetical scenerio could not occur.

  • Sorry, but this is a misunderstanding. The specific nature of the contents of this bag of ballots here is not important, except it should be regarded as not unlike a bag of poker chips, indistinguishable but for color.
    – agc
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 6:14

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