Crunching numbers: How blank spaces on ballots can affect an election race

FARGO, N.D. (Valley News Live) - Election Day may be over, but not all the results are set in stone. For example, Florida may be looking at three separate recounts: including its Senate and governor races, due to how close they are.

We wanted to know: if voters who left blank spaces actually filled them in—would that change any outcomes?

Here's some numbers to start you off: out of 579,621 eligible voters in North Dakota, the state saw a 329,086-voter turnout in this year's election.

"It's been a great election,” Cass County auditor, Michael Montplaisir, said. “I think we had record turnouts."

That's 56.78 percent of the state’s eligible voters. But some voters left some of the races blank—leaving some ‘what if’ questions.

For example, North Dakota's Secretary of State race: independent nominee and incumbent Secretary of State, Al Jaeger, won by 47.27 percent. Democratic candidate, Josh Boschee, trailed behind at 39.22 percent; meanwhile, independent nominee, Michael Coachman, took up 13.2 percent; write-ins took up the final 0.3 percent.

There was enough space between the candidates that no one should demand a recount.

"If it's between that one-half of one percent and two percent, they can demand a recount,” Montplaisir said. “...once we get through our county canvassing and then the state canvassing, then they have so many days after that to request a recount."

But not everyone who cast a ballot in North Dakota chose any candidate for that race. Out of all the 329,086 votes cast, just 305,918 actually filled in a circle for Secretary of State. That’s a difference of 23,168.

So let's say those 23,168 blank votes filled in Josh Boschee's circle (or at least some of those voted for Boschee, and perhaps a third candidate hadn’t taken up 13.2 percent).

The difference between Jaeger's and Boschee's votes would have been just 1,469.

Jaeger still would have won—but it would have been much closer. And when the votes are close enough for a recount, auditors would then look at the overvotes and undervotes.

So what are these?

Let's say there's two candidates: an overvote is when someone fills in both circles. An undervote is when someone leaves both blank.

So why would we need to recount these?

Cass county election coordinator, DeAnn Buckhouse, says in this year’s primaries, there was one instance where a machine accidentally counted an overvote:

"They voted for one candidate and then they crossed it off and voted for another candidate,” Buckhouse said. “Well, the machine can't distinguish that, so it saw that there was more than one vote for that race."

Also in over- and undervotes, write-ins would be examined more closely.

"I think what a candidate may end up saying is, 'well, what if they wrote my name in as a write-in, even though I was on the ballot,'" Montplaisir said.

Meaning even if both—or neither—circles are scribbled in, someone could have also written in that same candidate who is already on the ballot.

And that may have gone unchecked in the original count: write-in votes are only counted when another candidate files to run in a race.

For example, the 487 write-ins for North Dakota State Senator were never looked at, since no one other than Kevin Cramer and Heidi Heitkamp filed to run. But had the Senate race been close enough, those write-ins could have been reexamined.

According to Montplaisir, one district within Cass County may warrant a recount: that's legislative State Senator race in District 25—where out of 6,290 votes, the two candidates are only 24 votes apart.