NCSL's The Canvass

The Facts on 10 common election misconceptions

It’s October and that means crisp fall air, pumpkins everywhere and all manner of spooky and macabre decorations are dotting offices and front porches for Halloween. In keeping with the season, it’s a good time to look at the myths, urban legends, and scary stories that people think of when it comes to elections. Below are a few of the misconceptions about elections that have come up over the years.

Dead people vote

graphicWhen talk turns to election fraud, the idea that dead people vote is sure to come up. Indeed, dead people’s votes have been counted, but specters are not showing up at the polls. Instead, it sometimes happens that a voter votes early or by absentee ballot, and unfortunately passes away before Election Day. In most states those votes are still counted. The reasoning is that the voter was eligible at the time of completing the ballot. Besides, it can be virtually impossible from a practical point of view to separate out a ballot from someone who died before Election Day from the other ballots received. In April and May of this year, Maryland passed two bills (S 97 and H 884) clarifying that votes properly cast by someone who then passes away shall be counted.

But on the issue of election fraud there’s no escaping the fact that people sometimes vote using the identities of the deceased. “In Arkansas we’ve had dead people vote,” says Senator Bryan King (R-Ark.), a former election commissioner. “Voter fraud is not widespread and it is sensationalized when it happens, but it happened in certain places for a long time.”

You can’t vote twice

When it comes to state and federal elections voting in two different places is fraud, unwitting or otherwise. An interesting case to watch is developing in Kansas where a man has been voting in both Colorado and Kansas for years and is now being investigated by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

But certain states allow municipalities to decide whether nonresident property owners can vote in local elections, most often when a tax issue is on the ballot.

Your voter registration is automatically updated when you move

It can’t be said enough—your voter registration does not automatically update when you move. Keeping up with a mobile population is one of the biggest challenges election officials are facing today. According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, one in eight voter registrations is inaccurate. Online voter registration, the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) and the Interstate Crosscheck System have all helped states maintain accurate voter rolls as voters routinely move within a state or cross state lines without canceling their voter registration. “Sticky” voter registration in which registration stays with a voter even if they move jurisdictions within a state may be an option for states going forward. Massachusetts S 374 would establish “sticky” registration for voters in the Bay State.

Elections happen in the fall of even-numbered years

It is always election season, somewhere. This November, voters in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia will cast their ballots for state legislative and gubernatorial races, with control of the Senate at stake in Virginia. Voters in seven states will decide on statewide ballot measures in November as well. And, many municipalities, school boards and other local entities hold their elections in odd years.

“We have elections three out of every four years in Louisiana,” says Alfred "Butch" Speer, clerk for the Louisiana House of Representatives. “We like to say that we elect more of our officials than any other state.”

It’s not just in the fall or in November either. Many cities hold elections for mayor and city council in the spring, not to mention that voters in New Hampshire will kick off the presidential primary season in February. Kansas this year enacted H 2104, which moved its spring municipal elections to fall of odd years, hoping to capitalize on any “November is for voting” attitudes voters might have.

Running elections is a part-time job

Local election officials will tell you that they are often asked, “What do you do the other 364 days?” Months and even years go into planning for an election. Officials have to worry about finding polling places, recruiting and training poll workers and setting up the infrastructure required to run fair and accurate elections. Ballots have to be prepared and mailed ahead of time for military and overseas voters. Early voting and no-excuse absentee voting often starts several weeks ahead of Election Day. It’s more like an election season or an election period than just one day. The Democracy Fund has a great primer on all the things election officials need to prepare for next year’s presidential election.

Even after the polls close, the work is still in full swing. Many jurisdictions can’t tally all their votes by election night and are still verifying absentee and provisional ballots, so counting can continue days after the election. Then there are recounts, and post-election audits. Election results aren’t official until the state certification date—which is most often two to three weeks after the election. Let’s be clear—elections are a year-round job.

Provisional and absentee ballots aren’t counted unless the race is close

On election night, the media or others call an election for a candidate but you’ll never see an election official call it until that canvass is completed. Those results are unofficial, and the count goes on until the election is certified.

What’s still counted? Provisional ballots and absentee ballots. In the case of provisional ballots, many states require voters to confirm residency or identification before those votes can be counted. The voter votes a provisional ballot on Election Day but has to take some additional action to actually have the vote count. This varies from state to state depending on how long someone has to “cure” their provisional ballot.

As for absentee ballots that don’t arrive until after Election Day, whether they are counted and have a direct impact on a race depends on state law. Does statute say ballots must be received by Election Day, or postmarked by Election Day? Alaska, Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina, Washington and West Virginia all accept ballots that arrive after Election Day provided they are postmarked on or before then. The deadlines are often different for overseas and military voters who can return ballots often days after the election.

Ballots are thrown away

Ballots are not thrown away on whim. In many states it’s common to retain paper ballots for a certain period of time after an election before they are eventually discarded. Federal law requires ballots from an election for a federal office to be kept for at least 22 months. But there are occasions where some voted ballots that may not be able to be verified are kept separate but not counted. Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto (D-New Mexico, left) knows this from personal experience:

Image of Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto“Several years ago I was involved in a recount as an election attorney. One of the ballot boxes was missing the cast ballots from Election Day. Apparently, after announcing the election results, one of the precinct boards had ripped the paper ballots in two after they signed their report listing the votes for each candidate. The county clerk had saved the trash bag from that precinct, and during the recount I asked the Judge to order the Sheriff to impound the trash bag. The recount was resolved without having to open the trash bag. Three years later the sheriff’s office delivered the trash bag back to the county clerk, where it was opened. The contents included stale doughnuts, leftover pizza, and the missing ballots.”

You can’t vote via the Internet

So far, states have mostly used the Internet to transmit blank ballots to military and overseas (UOCAVA) voters, as required by the 2009 federal MOVE ActThirty-one states also allow these voters to return their voted ballots by electronic transmission as well (via fax, email or a web-based system). Some states afford the same privilege to people with disabilities or first responders who are away from their homes. Is it safe to send PDFs of voted ballots online or through any Internet-facilitated system? Many say no—see the July issue of The Canvass for more information. Since 2012, Alaska has permitted any voter (not just military or overseas voters) to use its online ballot delivery and return system, although it does require printing, signing, witnessing and scanning a voter certificate and identification sheet.

Elections are priceless

Sure, elections are priceless in the same sense that a sunset over the Pacific is priceless. But in the other sense—that they are cheap--is sure to garner a heated reaction from any election official. The costs associated with finding and training poll workers, renting polling places, printing and mailing election-related materials, and especially the need to replace aging voting equipment have all added to the tab of running elections. NCSL is joining state and local officials, academics and other organizations at looking just how “priceless” elections are.

Image of Sen. Bryan King“Elections are not cheap—with technology it’s changing even faster,” states King (right). “They aren’t cheap but they are priceless in keeping faith in our democratic process and in elected officials.”

And the question of who pays is becoming an important question. Because elections and who runs them are so complex (and there is so much variation) the question of “who pays” is complicated. Is it states? The feds? Local governments? The answer might be all of the above. Election officials are in the public eye creating the infrastructure of democracy, with a lot of moving parts. If anything goes wrong they are under scrutiny. Resources matter when perfection is the goal.

Elections don’t matter

This is just plain wrong. Elections matter, and each vote matters. Some elections have been decided by one vote.

“I was first recruited to run for the Senate when there was a vacancy on the ballot.  My selection to be the party nominee was decided by a one vote margin,” says Ivey-Soto.

Bookmark this

image of bookmarkimage of The Pew Charitable Trusts Logo


The 2014 Voting Experience, produced by The Pew Charitable Trusts. This October analysis is based on a series of surveys with voters over the course of a few months before and after last year’s November election. The focus was on the most important people—voters.

The results: Wait times, which were brought to the attention of electioneers everywhere when Obama commented on them in his 2012 acceptance speech, were shorter than most voters expected. Wait times vary greatly from one polling place to another, and are likely to be longer in a presidential election. The study showed that “mail” ballots often are returned in person or at a polling place and not by mail at all. And many likely voters changed their minds about how to cast a ballot—in person or by mail. Voters change their minds about even whether to vote.

Why does any of this matter? “A panel survey on election administration has never been done before, and it gets beyond who people vote for to how they experience the election process,” said Amy Cohen, officer of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Voting Information Project.  “Expectations can color everything about elections, from wait times to voting method, and this research shines a light on why balancing expectations with actual behavior is an ongoing challenge for administrators.”

One big number

One big number logo with 2929. The number of states that are now offering or planning to offer online voter registration. Vermont  became the latest state to launch their system on Oct. 13. In the last two months alone, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania have all launched online voter registration systems. Massachusetts implemented its system earlier this year as did Hawaii, Washington, D.C. and West Virginia. In addition Florida, Oklahoma and New Mexico passed online voter registration legislation but have not yet implemented it. This flurry of action has led to online voter registration being one of the stories of the year in election administration.


This fact seems to get all the press: federal funds for improving elections are running out and are unlikely to be reauthorized anytime soon. And it’s true. The Help America Vote Act of 2002, which put the one-and-only federal infusion of money into election administration, is running low and there’s no reason to think more federal money will follow.

This fact doesn’t get much attention: HAVA funds still remain. According to the Fiscal Year 2014 Annual Grant Expenditure Report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), 24 states still had funds available, or at least did so as of Sept. 30, 2014. The report was released in September 2015.

As of that date, $3.5 billion had been distributed to the states, some of which has not yet been expended by them. That number includes interest accrued since the distribution date. What’s left unspent isn’t chump change: $482,727,110. And on top of that, a few states have even more funds available to them that they haven’t yet requested. The total of not-yet-requested funds is an additional $5.5 million, according to Monica Evans, the director of grants management at the EAC. Georgia has the lion’s share of it, with $1.9 million in 2010 monies yet to be claimed. Twenty-two states have something less than $40,000 remaining. To find out if your state has a few thousand dollars still coming, contact Evans.

 “We’d love for these states to get all this money,” said Christy McCormick, the chair of the EAC. “The states have to use this money if it’s going to be of any value.”

There are reasons states aren’t at zero yet. California, for instance, has not yet met certain standards relating to its statewide voter registration databases, and can’t spend its allotment until that work is completed. Other states have chosen to spend their money at a slower burn rate and over a longer period. And still other states may be saving theirs for one big purchase in the near future; DC is an example of this.

The HAVA monies aren’t all created equal. Section 101 funds can be used in a broad array of election-improvement activities. Section 251 funds are somewhat more narrowly tailored with a focus on election technology, voter registration databases and a few other select uses. See Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Appropriate Uses of HAVA Funds for the details.

Or, if you’re a legislator from a state that shows a balance, ask your chief election official what the plan is to use these monies. He or she will definitely have an answer for you.


HAVA Funds Distributed to the States and Not Yet Used as of Sept. 30, 2014
State Section 101 Section 251 Total
Alabama 398,605 7,178,856 7,577,461
Alaska 684,618 4,151,244 4,835,862
American Samoa 66,224 106,098 172,322
Arizona 4,365,903 1,775,238 6,141,141
Arkansas 0 2,435,410 2,435,410
California 3,470,281 88,907,459 92,377,740
Colorado 360,442 1,735,321 2,095,763
Connecticut 0 1,610,256 1,610,256
Delaware 4,314 1,328,661 1,332,975
District of Columbia 1,038,976 10,816,224 11,855,200
Florida 2,421,618 43,334,817 45,756,435
Georgia 0 3,558,242 3,558,242
Guam 0 0 0
Hawaii 3,390,901 2,967,106 6,358,007
Idaho 2,188,033 85,394   2,273,427
Illinois 545,140 6,684,800   7,229,940
Indiana 0 130,316      143,916
Iowa 234,896 27,240      262,136
Kansas 3,717,658 -3,659,720   3,717,658
Kentucky 3,573,740 11,197,493 14,771,233
Louisiana 0                  0                  0
Maine 1,286,196      822,071   2,108,267
Maryland 589,034         23,413      612,447
Massachusetts 0 45,564,304 45,564,304
Michigan 8,514,672 26,266,300 34,780,972
Minnesota 0       -12,354                  0
Mississippi 0                  0                  0
Missouri 1,320,042   2,714,798   4,034,840
Montana 216,852     -333,106      216,852
Nebraska 0                  0                  0
Nevada 0   1,112,854   1,112,854
New Hampshire 4,050,053   7,586,381 11,636,434
New Jersey 623,661 10,222,909 10,846,570
New Mexico 0                  0                  0
New York 4,138,402 15,005,335 19,143,737
North Carolina 0   3,944,526   3,944,526
North Dakota 0   2,697,402   2,697,402
Ohio 0   1,693,314   1,693,314
Oklahoma 238,321 19,008,363 19,246,684
Oregon 0   7,512,753   7,512,753
Pennsylvania 0   6,127,997   6,127,997
Puerto Rico        17,347  4,547,636   4,564,983
Rhode Island                  0                  0                  0
South Carolina      488,701 3,958      492,659
South Dakota   4,770,733   6,267,333 11,038,066
Tennessee   2,780,941 22,644,727 25,425,668
Texas   8,789,156   4,776,834 13,565,990
Utah         18,016   1,104,415   1,122,431
Vermont                   0 11,120,655 11,120,655
Virgin Islands         22,788       550,913       573,701
Virginia       599,090 18,427,390 19,026,480
Washington                   0   5,771,879    5,771,879
West Virginia                   0   1,828,475    1,828,475
Wisconsin    2,748,091   3,520,873    6,268,964
Wyoming    1,374,760      178,508    1,553,268



From the Chair

rep. michelle ugenti-ritaRepresentative Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R) chairs the House Committee on Elections in the Arizona House of Representatives. She represents District 23 which includes the city of Scottsdale and the town of Fountain Hills. Representative Ugenti-Rita spoke to The Canvass on Oct. 22.

  • “I evaluate bills based on four things: does it enhance and protect the integrity of elections; does it empower voters; does it enable voter participation; and does it maintain the consistency of administration. I don’t think elections should be a partisan issue.”
  • “One of my biggest accomplishments in the past few years was introducing and passing  legislation to consolidate election dates in Arizona. There used to be a wide variety of dates for elections in odd years that depended on the jurisdiction and the race. And what happens to voter turnout in off years? It tanks. There is a quantifiable difference that the consolidation has made with regard to turnout as well as reducing costs for administering elections. When it comes to increasing turnout—it shouldn’t be about party politics.”
  • “Ballot harvesting is another issue I’m looking at to specifically limit who can collect and turn in ballots and how many. It’s important for maintaining the integrity of the election process by reducing fraud and ensuring voters have confidence in their system. It is counterintuitive to me that someone can collect and turn in someone else’s ballot. Obviously, there are specific situations in which it may need to be allowed.”
  • “Election related legislation is very difficult to pass and it should be. It impacts everyone but there is not exactly an industry to turn to for expertise. You have to go to the voters.”

Read the full interview with Ugenti-Rita.

The Election Administrator's perspective

Image of Joyce MascenaJoyce Mascena is the town clerk for Glastonbury, Conn. Originally called Naubuc, residents named the town after Glastonbury, England, to aid in the search for a new minister. Mascena is also a past president of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association. She spoke to The Canvass on Oct. 13.

  • “The town clerk determines which offices are on the ballot, accepts the Certifications of Party Endorsements for nominated candidates, creates and orders the ballots, issues, tracks and reconciles  absentee ballots, calls certain recounts and certifies certain elections. The registrars handle voter registration and the polls on Election Day and in all Connecticut towns there are two registrars, one from each major political party. Does this fragmented system make sense? I’m not sure it still does and there is some redundancy with all 169 towns in the state administering separate elections. We are all working toward the same goal but we should be working in a more streamlined and efficient manner.”
  • “The secretary is also in the process of developing a new election management system. Without this system, we’re constantly re-typing the same offices, terms and names on various reports and forms and submitting them, which only increases the potential for errors. With this new management system in place we will have the capability to enter the information once on the front end and generate all of our reports, filings and election results from one program. 2016 is the target “go live” date for this new management system.”
  • “Last year we received the Democracy Award for having the highest voter turnout in the state in the large town category—just under 69 percent. We are very proud of that. The registrars and I have established a very good working relationship and have avoided the problems and pitfalls that have plagued some of the other towns and cities in the state. As a common goal for our town, we work as a team to run timely, fair, smooth and accurate elections.”

Read the full interview with Mascena.

worth noting

  • “People are talking to their governments on 21st century technology, the government hears them with 20thcentury technology and is providing 19thcentury responses.”—former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright giving the keynote address at the Atlantic Council’s Democracy Rebooted: The Future of Technology in Elections.
  • Speaking of election technology, you have to read Doug Lewis and Rokey Suleman’s op-ed in The Hill on the coming voting machine crisis. It’s been making the rounds on several major publications and has been drawing attention to a critical issue.
  • Following up on last month, when The Canvass looked at the Voting Rights Act, DMV office closures in Alabama have many calling it a violation of the act and are asking for a federal probe.
  • Election law seems to be before the courts a lot lately and University of California-Irvine Law Professor Rick Hasen has an interesting look at election law in the Roberts’ Supreme Court.
  • Ballot access for third party candidates is getting attention in Pennsylvania. A recent court ruling tried to make things easier for minor party candidates, but Governor Tom Wolf (D) is appealing the decision. At issue is the number of signatures required to get on the ballot as well as the mechanism for challenging those signatures. Check out the August issue of The Canvass for more information on ballot access for third party presidential candidates.
  • More proof that the world of ballot selfies is murky at best—a mayoral candidate in Fall River, Mass., posted a photo of himself holding his voted ballot on Facebook and eventually local law enforcement got involved after several complaints were received. It’s a misdemeanor for a voter to allow their ballot to be seen under Massachusetts state law.
  • The Oct. 8 issue of electionlineWeekly has an interesting look at the challenge of making online voter registration accessible for those with disabilities. OVR is the story of the year in elections and many states will be keeping an eye on this issue as they look at the pros and cons of OVR.
  • Be sure to check out the latest on Los Angeles County’s plan to design and use its own voting systems. Plus, previewing it at South by Southwest Eco is pretty cool.
  • Virginia has an interesting debate going on about the use of e-signatures for absentee ballots, renewing the questions of the balance of convenience for voters with preventing fraud.
  • Oops—election officials in Prince William County, Md., are faced with fixing expensive ballot typos for the Nov. 3 elections. The cost of reprinting the ballots could be in the thousands of dollars.

from ncsl's elections team

A graphic that reads "From NCSL Elections Team."

Banner for NCSL Capitol ForumFive states are heading to the polls this fall, so check out NCSL’s pre-election analysis and stay tuned to NCSL’s StateVote webpage for 2015 election results.

Save the date: NCSL’s Capitol Forum will take place Dec. 8-11 in Washington D.C. We have some great election sessions lined up including Election Policy: Three Top Topics, an overview of legislative action on elections this year and a look at elections through The Voter’s Experience. Add in a lobby day on Capitol Hill and other great issue forums and it’s a can’t-miss event. See the online agenda for more information and register soon. 

Thanks for reading, and please stay in touch.

—Wendy Underhill and Dan Diorio

The Canvass, an Elections Newsletter for Legislatures © 2015 | Published by the National Conference of State Legislatures | William T. Pound, Executive Director

In conjunction with NCSL, funding support for The Canvass is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Election Initiatives project. Any opinions, findings or conclusions in this publication are those of NCSL and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Links provided do not indicate NCSL or The Pew Charitable Trusts endorsement of these sites.