It's nice to think of voting as a sophisticated mode of civic engagement.
But Todd Mielke knows better. He compares the process to a grade-school coloring contest.
"Some do a very careful job of coloring in the entire circle and not having anything they've missed," says Mielke. "Others just do a scribble thing. They don't care if they stay inside the lines."
Mielke is the Spokane County commissioner in the state of Washington. One of his duties is to help certify election results and he's logged countless hours trying to figure out just what voters were attempting to communicate on their ballots.
Ballots get confusing when voters "start making stray remarks, when they start working on a second profession as a cartoonist," explains Mielke. "Some people simply don't read the directions. And [the directions] are not typically very long."
In most states, including Minnesota, the law says a ballot is valid if election officials can determine the voter's intent, even if the voter didn't exactly follow the instructions.
Mielke says he's gotten pretty good at figuring out voters' intentions. But he's not sure he'll ever understand what's going through their minds.
"I know this may come as a shock to voters across the nation," says Mielke, "but crayons usually don't work when it comes to voting machines."
It's not usual for absentee ballots to be filled in with Crayolas or Day-Glo highlighters, neither of which can be read by electronic voting systems.
But it's on the write-in lines where voters get really creative.
"You get the normal cast of characters," says Mielke. "You get the Mickey Mouses and all that kind of stuff. Many people will write in the name of their pet and they'll make comments like, 'Because my dog could do a better job than the current elected official' or whatever. "
When they aren't using the write-in lines to nominate Madonna or Homer Simpson for president, voters have been known to fill them up with political rants.
"Lots of things get put onto that write-in line," says Harvard professor Steve Ansolabehere. "Like, 'I'm voting for the lesser of evils.' Or sometimes they'll say, 'I'm really upset about taxes' or 'I'm really upset about the Iraq war.'"
Ansolabehere has served on voting task forces and observed a number of recounts. He says there are voters out there who just want to share their views with someone, anyone.
"They think it's an opportunity to have their say," Ansolabehere says. "And the vote isn't really enough. It's kind of a crude instrument. I can only vote for one of these candidates. I can't tell them why I want to vote for one of these candidates. Some people want to say a little bit more."
There's the voter who wrote, "I'd do a better job than any monkee [sic] you've had in there!' Then there's the much talked about Minnesota ballot that suggested "Lizard People" for a number of different offices.
Ansolabehere says his favorite ballot was submitted in a New Hampshire Senate race.
"One of the candidates was arguing that a ballot ought to be counted because the voter had circled his name," recalls Ansolabehere. "What the voter had done, though, was also write, 'Not this idiot' next to it. So that helped clarify the voter's intention."
Ansolabehere points out that 99 percent of voters mark their ballots exactly as instructed, leaving no stray lines, cartoon drawings or political dissertations.
He knows there are people who believe mismarked ballots should simply be thrown out. They argue that if voters can't complete a ballot correctly, their votes shouldn't count. But the way Ansolabehere sees it, democracy requires a bit of flexibility.
"Ultimately voting isn't a literacy test or an educational test," he explains. "If somebody doesn't read well enough to get the instructions right, that's not a reason for disqualifying them. We don't want to exclude people. We want to record everybody's preferences."
Even if that preference is to vote for their cats for state representative.