Minnesotans have started to vote. They expect their votes will be counted, and mostly, they will be. But some votes will not be counted.

Negligence, ignorance and manipulation can cause a ballot to be invalid, or a potential voter not to vote. Some voters will self-disenfranchise. Informed and intelligent voting will minimize problems and ensure that ballots are properly cast and valid.

As a Supreme Court justice, I scrutinized ballots in several elections, including the 2008 U.S. Senate race and the 2010 race, each of which ended with a statewide recount. I reviewed thousands of ballots and saw firsthand why some were invalid.

It was disheartening when our court was compelled to disqualify ballots because of voter error. The voters had self-disenfranchised. I want to share some insights into how this happens with the goal of minimizing such errors.

Voting has two main facets: the right to speak, casting a ballot; and the right to be heard, having that ballot counted. These rights are a core value in our democratic society. Power is the end game of elections. We use elections to choose our leaders and hold them accountable. This is why elections need to be safeguarded and well-regulated. Voting rules and regulations are part of these safeguards and must be followed.

Voters make mistakes when they do not understand or follow instructions. Ignorance, carelessness and negligence are the main causes of self-disenfranchisement. A poorly marked, smudged or soiled ballot, or an improperly filed ballot, can be invalid.

Voter errors are more likely with absentee or mail-in ballots, which are greatly increasing this year. There are well-defined procedures in place to ensure the integrity of these ballots. An absentee voter must carefully read these instructions and follow them.

To be valid, a ballot also must get to the right place in a timely manner. This can be tricky given different jurisdictional standards, the postmaster general’s actions and some current political rhetoric. Know the standards that apply to you.

The most dependable way to vote is still to vote in person. It should be a safe option. If you vote early it will be best to take your ballot to an election site or ballot drop box. Voting by mail is still a viable alternative but putting your ballot in the mail early is a wise strategy. Deposit your ballot in the mail at least two weeks before Election Day.

Negligence by election officials can change election results. It was a negligently formatted ballot, not fraud or ignorance, that determined the outcome of the 2000 election in Florida. Minnesota has an excellent reputation for how we conduct elections; nevertheless, be careful and diligent when you fill out your ballot to make sure it clearly reflects how you want to cast your vote. If in doubt, seek clarification.

Be mindful, as well, that there are persons who want to suppress your vote, the better to help themselves gain or retain power. These tactics are many and varied. Some examples are restrictive voter ID provisions; remote and/or limited voting places; purging eligible voters from voting lists without notice and spreading false and misleading information.

Asserting false claims about voter fraud is one such tactic. Spreading false information and fear about voting is an unpatriotic tactic because it undermines confidence in our elections.

Previous elections have shown that election fraud is limited in scope. During the 2008 Senate election recount, an election in which nearly 3 million votes were cast statewide, I asked the attorneys for both sides whether they found any evidence of fraud. Both attorneys said they had not uncovered any fraud. Ben Ginsberg, a prominent Republican election attorney, recently said that “after decades of looking for illegal voting, there is no proof of widespread fraud.”

The bottom line is that American voters are honest. Nevertheless, be wary of anyone who encourages illegal behavior such as voting more than once. Their intent is to discredit the election process.

Negative political ads can suppress the vote by fostering cynical attitudes, especially among independent or undecided voters. Negative ads create the impression that neither candidate is worthy of receiving your vote. Not voting for this reason is self-disenfranchisement.

Negative ads may make your decision more difficult, but you still have a duty to vote. If you are having a difficult time deciding how to vote, look for qualities in a candidate that define good character and someone who understands that while we elect our leaders in partisan elections, once elected, they represent all of us.

Following these simple principles should enable a voter to cast an informed, intelligent, thoughtful and valid ballot. As Theodore Roosevelt said: “A thinking people will seldom go wrong in the end.”


Paul H. Anderson is a retired justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.