What’s on my Ballot?

Before the first vote can be cast, and well before votes are ever counted, municipalities begin the vital job of creating ballots. This goes beyond layout and printing – ensuring that the correct races, candidates, referendum questions and even instructions make their way onto a voter’s geospecific ballot is crucial to running a free and fair election. It isn’t always easy, either. Candidates can be disqualified or drop out of races right before an election. New election laws can go into effect that change districts or the timing of an election. How do election officials make sure that the right ballot ends up in the right hands?

It Starts with a File

Whether a ballot is hand-marked by a voter on paper or recorded on a ballot marking device (BMD), all ballots begin their life as an election definition file. The creation of an election definition file can be handled a few different ways depending on the size, budget, and tools available in a jurisdiction. In some cases, jurisdictions create their own ballots using ballot design software, such as Clear Ballot’s ClearDesign. In other instances, they may pay their election management vendor to create ballots for them or, in the case of some municipalities, their ballots may be created for them by their county or state election officials.

These files, once they are checked and approved, are one of the most important pieces of an election. Without a proper election definition file, voters could receive a ballot with incorrect contests. Potentially more concerning, for voters whose ballots are not counted by hand, if the incorrect file is loaded onto a tabulator, their ballot could be rejected when cast.

Logic and Accuracy Testing

So how does a jurisdiction ensure that they have the right election definition file in the right place and that votes are ready to be counted? Before an election, administrators conduct what is known as logic and accuracy, or L&A, testing.

Logic and accuracy testing serves several vital functions in an election: it ensures that equipment is functioning properly; it ensures that ballots were created with the correct information and the tabulators and ballot marking devices are reading them accurately; it shows voters and stakeholders the security and accuracy of the system; and it prepares the election staff for a successful election.

Logic and accuracy testing is conducted prior to every election as a form of routine maintenance of the election process. In many cases, logic and accuracy testing is open to the public, and curious voters are encouraged to attend and witness the process to increase transparency. In the past couple of years, some counties have even begun live-streaming their testing in an attempt to reach a wider audience and boost voter confidence.

During the logic and accuracy testing, election officials will use sample ballot test decks to confirm that the machines are tabulating votes accurately. In order to create a controlled environment, the jurisdiction will create a test deck of ballots with a known number of votes for each contest and candidate and then run them through their tabulators. If the tabulators produce the exact result that was anticipated, then the file in the machine should match the ballots on hand and they can proceed with the election. If there are any differences, election officials will know to make adjustments and correct any errors before the election itself. Logic and accuracy testing is crucial to running a smooth election.

Voting by Mail

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) requires states to allow certain groups of citizens (often members of the military and those working in foreign service) to register and vote absentee in elections for Federal offices, and those voters will also often vote in their state and local races by absentee ballot as well. In addition to UOCAVA protected voters, millions of Americans vote by mail each year due to age, health, lack of transportation, travel, or just preference. All those voters need to receive the correct geospecific ballot that corresponds with their voting district and the contests that they are eligible to vote in. Due to the time needed for ballots to be mailed, cast, and then returned to election offices, these voters also must receive their ballots before voters arriving to vote in person on election day.

This makes creating and proofing ballots more complex, since mail-in ballots might have to be sent before a jurisdiction undergoes their logic and accuracy testing. If an error is found that effects the ballots that were mailed out to voters, having to issue corrected ballots and reach voters who may have tried to cast their ballots already is costly and confusing. It can also draw negative media attention and cause voters to lose confidence in their election officials. Because of this, ballot and election definition file management are vitally important for election administrators.

When Mistakes are Made

Elections are run by humans, and if there is one thing we know about humans, it’s that they sometimes make mistakes. Unfortunately for election officials, with heightened scrutiny on our nation’s elections and more media attention focusing on contests at every level, even minor mistakes can lead to big consequences. If a tabulator has the wrong election definition file loaded onto the machine, ballots cast into the device could be rejected or read incorrectly and results could be impacted. And it’s not just tabulators. If the wrong ballot is mailed out or handed out to voters, they might not realize that they were not able to vote in a contest or have their say on a local referendum.

These errors are what keep election officials up at night, but they are not proof of fraud. Additionally, in states and counties with hand-marked paper ballots, these mistakes can be resolved. Corrected ballots can be printed and delivered to precincts. More importantly, there is always a verifiable record of every vote cast that can be used to resolve differences in tabulation and show with definitive proof how voters chose to cast their ballots. While hand counting every election would take weeks, that auditable record of paper votes is vitally important to safeguarding the vote and is the reason voting integrity groups advocate for hand-marked paper ballots in elections.


Download or Print



As the leader in election innovation, Clear Ballot has introduced a new class of tools and a modern approach to voting, enabling unprecedented speed, accuracy, and transparency that officials and the voting public have sought for decades. Clear Ballot entered the election industry with its first product in 2012, disrupting the industry with the nation’s first independent, automated audit, and four years later developed a complete voting system which is now the fastest growing voting system in the industry. Clear Ballot’s election technology is currently used in twelve states, serving more than 34 million registered voters.