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noun [countable]

a situation in which a voter has made more votes than the number allowed according to the rules of an election


verb [intransitive]


noun [countable]

'In the second phase, USA TODAY and The Miami Herald joined with five other newspapers to examine more than 110,000 overvotes – ballots that were disqualified because they registered more than one presidential vote when run through vote-counting machines.'

USA Today 11th May 2001

'Comelec legal chief Ferdinand Rafanan also said voters should not overvote or voting more than is necessary. For instance, if one is voting for the President, the voter should only shade one oval opposite the candidate he's voting for.'

Inquirer.net 9th February 2010

The result of the United States presidential election will represent the climax of many months of speculation about whether America's first black president will be elected for a second term of office. Anyone who has strong feelings about the results of this, or indeed any, election will be keen to cast their vote and must be careful not to jeopardize its validity by unintentionally submitting an overvote.

overvotes generally only occur in voting systems based on paper – either punch cards or ballot slips which are manually counted or optically scanned

An overvote occurs when a voter, either accidentally or because they haven't understood the rules, marks their ballot paper in such a way that they've voted for more candidates than the number they're permitted to vote for in relation to a particular office. This has significant consequences, resulting in that person's ballot paper being deemed invalid and effectively cancelling their vote. Electronic voting systems usually have mechanisms in place which make it impossible to overvote, and so overvotes generally only occur in voting systems based on paper – either punch cards or ballot slips which are manually counted or optically scanned.

The concept of an overvote was of particular significance in the controversial presidential ballots which took place in Florida in November 2000. The results proved highly contentious in relation to the narrow margins by which former President George Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore. The vote was subjected to a recount which took centre stage in the election, it being argued that voter mistakes – such as incorrectly-punched voting cards (resulting in little pieces of paper famously described as hanging/pregnant chads) and overvotes – had significantly, and perhaps unfairly, influenced the outcome.

Background – overvote and undervote

The word overvote is used both as a verb and a countable noun to refer respectively to the action of voting incorrectly or an instance of doing so. It is mainly used in American English, becoming more widely recognized after the recount controversy associated with the 2000 presidential election. The word actually made its first appearance in English long before this however, originally functioning as a synonym of outvote (to defeat someone by winning more votes), which later became obsolete.

Overvote is of course formed by affixation of the prefix over- in its sense of 'too much' (compare overheat, overreaction). Correspondingly, overvote also has an antonym undervote, where under- means 'not enough' (compare underestimate, undernourished). The word undervote, also used as a countable noun or verb, therefore refers to the situation of someone voting for fewer candidates than the number they are permitted to vote for in relation to a particular office. Unlike an overvote however, an undervote does not usually result in a cancelled vote, and is in fact considered a voter's right. This means that instructions on ballot papers often use wordings such as 'Vote for no more than three candidates', giving the voter the option to vote for one, two or a maximum of three different candidates. An undervote does of course become invalid if it relates to a single choice election.

The word vote is a productive animal in word formation, also occurring in phrasal verbs such as vote off/out (to remove someone from a position by voting), vote in (to give someone a position by voting), vote down (to stop something by voting) or vote through (to get something officially accepted by voting). A recent addition to this group is vote (something) up, now popularly used to refer to the action of voting for something that you like on the TV or Internet.

For teachers

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by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 27th March 2012.

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