Voters' poorly marked ovals could lead to contested ballots

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FILE - This May 26, 2020, file photo shows an Official Democratic General Primary mail-in ballot and secrecy envelope, for the Pennsylvania primary in Pittsburgh. Amid the global pandemic, more people than ever are expected to bypass their polling place and cast absentee ballots for the first time. Voters marking ballots from home could lead to an increase in the kinds of mistakes that typically would be caught by a scanner or election worker at the polls. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

ATLANTA – Two decades ago, Florida's hanging chads became an unlikely symbol of a disputed presidential election. This year, the issue could be poorly marked ovals or boxes.

Amid the global coronavirus pandemic, more people than ever are expected to bypass their polling place and cast absentee ballots for the first time. Voters marking ballots from home could lead to an increase in the kinds of mistakes that typically would be caught by a scanner or election worker at the polls.

Experts say that's likely to mean more ballots with questionable marks requiring review. That’s not necessarily a bad thing under normal circumstances, but President Donald Trump has repeatedly questioned the integrity of mail-in voting, and his campaign has already challenged aspects of it in court.

While ballots subject to review have historically represented a tiny portion of overall ballots, it's possible disputes could arise and end up as part of a Florida-like fight, especially in battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

“This could be 2000′s hanging chad in Pennsylvania,” said Suzanne Almeida, interim director of the state chapter of the nonpartisan watchdog Common Cause. “Potential challenges, delays in results, questions on which ballots count and who counts them — there are just a lot of questions, and that could open up Pennsylvania to a lot of uncertainty.”

The group is working with election officials statewide, emphasizing clear and consistent guidelines for dealing with questionable marks, such as when a voter circles a name or uses an X or a checkmark rather than filling in the oval — or even crosses out one selection and marks a second.

While all states perform ballot reviews and have rules related to voter intent, some have never seen anything like this year’s anticipated absentee ballot volume. In half the states, absentee ballots accounted for less than 10% of votes cast in 2016. Many could see half or more votes cast absentee this fall.

Colorado and Washington, two states accustomed to large volumes of hand-marked ballots, have comprehensive guidelines online detailing how to interpret almost every conceivable way a voter could mark a ballot. Procedures are in place for handling markings that may be disputed by partisan observers.