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Traditionally, and currently, what stops human vote counters from altering ballots to make them 'Spoilt / Invalid votes' ?

Referring to - Spoilt vote / Invalid vote

So if a theoretically dishonest human vote counter could mark / alter ballots that vote for politicians they are opposed to, to have them be disregarded as Spoilt votes / Invalid votes

One would think the obvious answer would be the presence of overseers, however, would there not be cases of rooms with lots of human vote counters and not enough overseers.

A USEFULL MEASURE would be to place all the 'Spoilt votes' into separate containers to have them examined, initially with magnifying glasses, these days, with all the new tech, there would be all sorts of methods, but of course applying them to more than one counting table would not make it viable, you would think.

NOTE - A commenter below this question wrote -
"Multiple persons each checking each other" -
Two things -

  • (1} - What if it is the first human counter that reads the ballots that alters them, then the ballot/ballots is changed forever without detection
  • (2) - If the form is changed by a later human counter, then the form is changed forever and many may assume an error occurred, this could occur if the specific ballot form is not tracked / photographed
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    I think this needs a country tag. Oct 10, 2022 at 8:15
  • Comments deleted. Please remember that comments are not for answering the question. If you would like to answer, please post a real answer.
    – Philipp
    Oct 18, 2022 at 8:22

10 Answers 10

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I think that this risk is greatly diminished by relying on multiple persons doing the counting simultaneously, the so called two man rule.

Because you expressed disbelief in that in a comment, let me explain how that works in an example: I was part of an election committee for the last election of the German Parliament (Bundestag). Me and six others (we didn't know each other before) were counting the ballot. We were all in one room with an average distance of say 1-2m around a big table, all seeing and observing what the other one is doing. Nobody used a pen during counting except for the one person writing down the results and this person used a pen only on the minutes. First we opened the ballot box on the big table and sorted by (there is a two votes voting system) three categories (first and second vote equal, first and second vote unequal, potentially invalid). Then we sorted the single categories by party/person to be elected and counted them. For counting at least two persons counted the same stack repeatedly and compared results. The sum of the counted number of votes was compared to the total number of voters who had appeared this day. If the sums weren't equal we recounted everything. All the invalid votes were seen and decided upon by all members of the election board. We counted about 600 ballots in 1.5 hours (with almost final country-wide results in the same evening). Any citizen could have shown up and observed the counting process. At the end we signed the official report and to the best of my knowledge this report contains the numbers as I and others have counted them.

What you describe as a possible way to forge results of an election would require secrecy, but I'm reasonably sure that this secrecy wasn't given at any time of the process.

It's a lot of work, a huge number of people have to volunteer to have this amount of cross-checking power available, but I actually trust it more than any other system, especially computerized counting solutions. The low number of ballots that were counted by that many people means that even if somebody would be able to influence the counting results somehow, the possible strength would still be quite limited.

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    Two details on the process - I have been leader (Wahlvorsteher) of such committees for two decades: The minimum number of persons to be present at the counting table is five. As soon as that number is not present (because someone went to the toilet), counting has to stop immediately. If a ballot is not cast without any doubt, all members of the committee are to vote on its validity. The vote is recorded in the minutes, including a reason if it is invalidated, and the ballot is marked in a way that a review process can identify which decision concerned which ballot.
    – ccprog
    Oct 10, 2022 at 13:55
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    As you mentioned using a pen, I'm reminded that ballots are, in B.C., Canada, often requested to be filled in with pencil, not pen. But even when we fill in with a pen, we're expected to use specific colours. Which is to say, you can reduce the effect by giving the counters a different coloured pen to mark their count sheets - then people down the line know if it was spoiled after the voting process happened. Oct 10, 2022 at 20:00
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    Also, in small towns like mine the leader (Wahlvorsteher) and deputy (Stellvertreter) are typically one from the CDU/CSU and on from the SPD with the assumption that they’ll be watching each other extremely closely to prevent them from doing any potentially fraudulent stuff. Of course, the town is small so they know the other one is from the opposite party.
    – Jan
    Oct 11, 2022 at 11:01
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    @AlexanderThe1st I know that happens in parts of the US for hand recounts. In most states, ballots are to be marked only in black pen, or sometimes blue or black pen. Then in the counting area only red pens are allowed. I believe that one of the lawsuits against the group running the second recount of 2020 presidential ballots in Arizona (there were several) was for allowing black pens in the counting area in violation of Arizona law. Oct 11, 2022 at 17:16
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    I can't help being unreasonably proud over such a mundane matter well performed. Thank you for your service and your account of it. Oct 12, 2022 at 0:58
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That would be illegal and unprofessional, and a high-risk-low-return crime.

The first step is to hire good honest people. People who have something to lose if they are convicted of a crime of dishonesty.

Then you have some monitoring system. You don't need to monitor everybody all the time. Just enough that a person couldn't be certain of "getting away with it".

Then you make it clear that you would convict and punish anyone cheating the count. A conviction like that would discredit a person for many years.

For a counter the risks are high, the rewards are low. So they won't do it.

This is essentially the same as any low reward crime - stealing a frozen chicken from a supermarket, for example. The chance of getting caught is low, but the risk (to reputation) is high, and most people just don't do it.

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    What about the practical side? I think votes are counted in an open area -- like on tables. The spoiler would be obviously writing on them, or punching extra holes; or maybe hunched with their backs to everyone? Oct 10, 2022 at 3:50
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    @OwenReynolds exactly. I have volunteered to vote counting once, and there's only ever one or two people with pens because except for writing down the numbers for a specific urn, there is nothing to write for anyone else, so a saboteur writing ANYTHING anywhere would immediately be highly suspicious
    – Hobbamok
    Oct 10, 2022 at 8:31
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This is why there should never be only one human counter.

Instead, you should have a team counting the votes. A team where people nominated by different parties work together and can oversee each other, and report each other if any of them does something like this. Since they are supporters of different parties, they have no reason to change all the ballots to one party.

For example in Austrian national parliamentary elections, sections § 8, § 9 and § 15 of the Nationalrats-Wahlordnung (National Council Electoral Regulation) specify how local counting authorities (Sprengelwahlbehörden and Gemeindewahlbehörden) consist of people nominated by different parties in proportion to their strength in the most recent National Council, and even those parties that aren't entitled to a seat in the counting authority but were represented in the last National Council are allowed to nominate people to watch over the counting.

Of course it is possible that they might collude to invalidate some or all of the votes given to small parties not represented in the counting authorities, or even distribute them among their own parties; however, if you were one of them, would you trust all these strangers nominated by other parties to not report such a thing? Surely among any group of people from such diverse political backgrounds, there will always be at least one who actually cares about the democratic process and will report any electoral fraud to the authorities.

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In the UK, a counter is never unobserved while they have access to the ballots. There will be another counter sitting next to them, and a counting agent acting on behalf of each of the major candidates standing behind them.

This is a picture of a UK count conducted usually in a sports hall. The people on the outside of the tables are representatives of the political parties and candidates.

Before the result is announced the Returning Officer (person in charge of the election) shows any spoiled, or unusual ballots, to the candidates and explains how he/she is going to treat each one.

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    The other thing I have seen at the count in UK elections is that the number of spoiled ballots is so low that all are displayed in front of (representatives of) the candidates directly. When I watched this, the vast majority were blank, and some had "none of the above" on them. An argument started when one had drawn a very neat phallus inside the box corresponding to the Tory candidate, and they didn't know if it counted as a vote or not…
    – Landak
    Oct 11, 2022 at 15:26
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    @Landak As one who has stood as a candidate in a local election, the moment when the RO shows the spoiled ballots to the candidates always gives rise to a few laughs. Especially funny is the situation you describe where someone has written an insult, or obscenity against a candidate's name. Remarks like "Are you a **** John?", one candidate might ask of another. "Because if your one of those you've got the vote". It's usually all very friendly with a good deal of leg-pulling. But as you say the numbers of spoiled ballots are so small that it is never going to decide an election.
    – WS2
    Oct 11, 2022 at 15:32
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    @Landak Yes, that corresponds to my experience too (the bit about candidates' counting agents being able to inspect all the spoiled ballots, not the bit about the phallus). Usually a moment when three or four of us, who would normally very rarely agree about anything, could all instantly agree that the tellers and returning officer had made the right call. Oct 11, 2022 at 15:36
  • @WS2 Wikipedia has one General Election tie for the United Kingdom (1886, settled by the casting vote of the Returning Officer) and 14 single-digit margins, the most recent being in 2017. In 1997 there was a by-election in Winchester which was actually caused by an Election Petition based on disqualified ballots. Such occurrences are rare, but they do happen. Oct 12, 2022 at 12:52
  • @AndrewLeach I've been at one that was close enough for the opposing counting agent to request (and be granted) a full recount, but even in that case, he didn't dispute any of the spoiled ballots. Oct 12, 2022 at 13:28
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Damaging any significant number of ballots (a) would be extremely difficult if independent observers are present, and (b) would make the polling station stand out statistically, which increases the probability for such fraud to be discovered.

E.g. if the amount of invalid ballots is 1% nation-wide but 10% at some of the polling stations, it's highly likely that observers from these stations will be interviewed and any available camera footage will be reviewed by journalists or activists.

In most countries voting fraud is a serious crime with real jail time, which, combined with a high probability of such acts to be discovered, gives people a good reason not to do it.

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In Italy the procedures for vote counting are fairly complex and involve several persons.

Each territory is subdivided in so called "sezioni elettorali" (electoral sections), which may be a subset of a neighborhood in big cities, or big country areas. Each citizen is registered in one electoral section and each section, during elections, is assigned a group of people called "ufficio elettorale di sezione" (section electoral office).

The people comprising the sections electoral offices are common citizens taken from special lists to which the subscription is voluntary. Subscription is subjected to some requirements to avoid conflicts of interests and to prevent people with criminal records to subscribe.

The exact composition of the electoral offices may vary with the kind of elections, but for the last political elections of 25 September 2022 every section electoral office was composed by (document in Italian):

  • 1 president
  • 1 secretary
  • 4 counters

The principal duties of these offices are to regulate the voting operations during the actual voting session and then, after voting has closed, to count the votes.

The manual I linked to describes all the rules and procedures for the electoral offices. In particular, the counting of votes must be carried out in this fashion (described starting from p.102 - I simplify a bit, since the rules are a bit convoluted):

a. A first counter, randomly chosen, takes a voting card out of the ballot box, unfolds the card and pass it to the president.

b. The president speaks loudly the expressed vote.

c. The president then pass the card to another counter.

d. This latter counter takes note of the result of the vote on a table.

e. At the same time the secretary also speaks loudly the result of the vote and records it on a register.

f. A third counter takes the card and stores it in another box.

And in another part of that document it is stated that during the counting all the members of the office must be present. If one member has to go to the bathroom, for example, the counting must stop.

Moreover, it is also stated that the voting cards can be handled exclusively by the members of the office.

This last requirement is important, because during these counting operations, which are carried out in a closed room in which the access is restricted and which is guarded outside by armed policemen, there may be other authorized people present, the most prominent of which are the so called "rappresentanti di lista" (list representatives).

These are nominated by the parties and have the right of being present during the counting to check the impartiality of the procedure. Usually list representatives are not unique for a single office (for lack of personnel), and they often are responsible for many different electoral sections, so they come and go and take turns checking different offices at different times.

As you can see, it is quite a complicated mechanism. Subverting it would require that several different people, randomly chosen, would be accomplices in an electoral fraud. You would need at the very least the president, the secretary and two counters to be in cahoot, assuming the other two counters and the list representatives were almost sleeping!

Note that there are two independent registrations, and these are checked first by the local electoral office (usually one for every city), and then also rechecked by a jurisdictional court. So any mismatch could lead to a recount.

In Italy we have a record of Mafia "driven" electoral frauds, especially in southern regions, but they were usually carried out with systems that bypassed the section electoral office. It is much more simple to intimidate people to vote for someone than to bribe a whole bunch of random people. And there are/were tricks to make sure electors did actually vote for the "Mafia-supported" candidate (in recent times a photo of the electoral card taken during voting would suffice, although officially smartphones are not permitted in the voting cabins).

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  • Interesting. Would you be able to add some numbers to your explanation? How many votes total does a typical section count? How many representatives are there - are there enough so they could show up at every counting location? How long does that "read out and write down" method of counting take?
    – ccprog
    Oct 11, 2022 at 12:46
  • @ccprog These are very fragmented data, since the differences among regions are substantial. Moreover, the Italian electoral laws are a mess, especially the one for the political general elections. Some info I gathered: this is a statistical document (2017) in which you can find a table about how many sections each region is comprised of. Using the total number of electors therein you can calculate the average. Oct 11, 2022 at 14:10
  • @ccprog However keep in mind that this may vary wildly because electoral sections are somewhat related to geography, so to speak, i.e. a given street belongs to one specific section. So more densely populated areas may have sections with more electors. Of course there are (soft) limits, and when an area gets more population some sections may be split. Oct 11, 2022 at 14:10
  • @ccprog As for the list representative, I can't give hard data. Some ~30 years ago I was in the list for the sections offices (at that time it was a mandatory office for any eligible adult - rules have changed since then). I was nominated for office a couple times, in particular, once as a counter and once as a secretary. At that time the representative had to be nominated by parties within a couple days from the election and that nomination had to be formalized at municipality level. ... Oct 11, 2022 at 14:19
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In my country (Portugal) all sections have 5 people, usually all nominated by different political parties so it's significantly harder to get people to agree on tampering.

When you get your blank ballots in the morning the exact number is counted and written down, so at the end of the day your votes + blanks + null ballots MUST match the initial count, otherwise you need to justify why there's a difference.

The counting procedure is usually to pile votes by party then each section member counts each pile, so in essence you have 5 people that have to count all votes and agree on the totals for each party / candidate, otherwise you can't close the count.

Once the count is finished the votes are placed in a bag for transport that is then sealed and given to the police who are in charge of taking it to the "central" polling station with both bags and seals unbroken and undamaged.

Source: I have been a section member multiple times.

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I'd just comment on @Trilarion 's answer but no rep. My town of about 400 voters (US) can't afford a counting machine so we do hand counts. 8 or 10 volunteers are paired up by non-matching party affiliation and the ballots are divided into stacks of 50. Each pair gets a stack and each counter gets a tally sheet. The pairs go through their stacks simultaneously reading aloud the selection for each question and marking their respective sheets. At the end of the stack we go over our tallies and make sure they agree and add up, we sign the sheets and wrap them around the stack, then get another stack. Then the stacks get locked up and sent to the capital. It's tedious. We like it.

The only way you could pull a fraud would be to agree instantly and silently with someone you hadn't planned to be working with -- and of different politics -- that you were going to miscount things... somehow... And then you might be able to affect 20-25% of the ballots of our tiny electorate, creating stacks that didn't match the town statistics, signed with your names under penalty of perjury. How much fun is that?

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Lots of people have already given good answers about the controls in place, rational individual's risk/benefit calculations and the statistical visibility of large scale fraud.

Add to it that, in a normally-functioning democracy, the party benefiting from the fraud has every incentive to keep a lid on this type of clumsy, easily detectable, behavior:

  • At small scale, it doesn't "move the needle" and won't significantly alter an election. However it risks reputational damage if found out.

  • At large scale, it would require coordination across many different cheaters. That has a much higher risk of being leaked out and a party caught doing that would, hopefully, be shunned by voters.

There are, at least in the US, other safer ways to influence elections, such as gerrymandering and manipulating voting regulations.

And... you can always claim that the other party is doing those things. No proof needed.

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I was a ballot counter on democratic, and to my best knowledge, fair elections.

The main cause, why is it impossible, that normally all the parties with contradicting interests must delegate ballot counters to all voting place. They watched everything what I did and I watched them.

Before that, I was prepared by my delegating party, what should I watch, and I also had a phone number to call if I see any problematic. I am sure, also they had.

All the ballots must be counted by everybody, by hand. To make a ballot invalid, we (I + at least someone from an opposite party) must agree that it is invalid. If there is a disagreement, we can argue and doing it well, maybe we can win 2-3 votes in an average sized voting place (about 10000 ballots). But it does not worth it, except rare cases (like Florida Bush vs. Gore).

If we see that the other side does anything problematic, then first we must say stop, then second, we have a phone number from our delegating party, who to call. The end result will be a record about the problem, and in the last resort, even a court can decide if the ballot was valid of not. But that is nearly unheard, because such events are too rare, and some "local committee for elections" or similar before that makes decision with this meaning: "It does not matter if that ballot was valid or not, because it is not enough to change the result".

So the answer is that I could not cheat anything significantly because everything, what I do, is closely watched by a guy exactly with the opposite goal. I can not miscount anything, because guys with opposite interests are watching me (and I watch them), and second, because all the ballots are counted multiple times by opposite parties.

The best what could be done, to win about 0.001% in the problematic cases where a ballot is on the border of the validity, but even that is... problematic (if the opposite party detects what I am trying do, they will do the same, and also they start to complain on everything - no one wants this).

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  • An extension from the future: Any "electronical vote", voting in mail or voting without required personal documents are not valid in my eyes. That includes all the elections in the USA since the 90s. You can say anything, I just don't believe that they would represent the people's will. The only acceptable election is, in my eyes, if the ballots are on paper, guys from opposite parties are counting them and they watch each other. I find it surreal that it is possible in the USA and I am nearly sure that there will be once a big outrage if a cheat becomes discovered.
    – Gray Sheep
    Dec 8, 2022 at 13:38

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