This article was originally posted at Freedom to Tinker on November 14, 2018.
Well designed ballot layouts allow voters to make their intentions clear; badly designed ballots invite voters to make mistakes. This year, the Florida Senate race may be decided by a misleading ballot layout—a layout that violated the ballot design recommendations of the Election Assistance Commission. In Miami, Florida in the year 2000, the badly designed “butterfly ballot” misled over 2000 voters who intended to vote for Al Gore, to throw away their vote. (That’s a strong statement, but it’s backed up by peer-reviewed scientific analysis.) In Sarasota, Florida in the year 2006, in a Congressional race decided by 369 votes, over 18,000 voters failed to vote in that race, almost certainly because of a badly designed touch-screen ballot layout. In Broward County, Florida in the year 2018, it appears that a bad optical-scan ballot design caused over 26,000 voters to miss voting in the Senate race, where the margin of victory (as of this writing, not yet final) is 12,562 votes.
Back in 2000, many Miami voters wishing to vote for the second candidate down the left-hand side, punched the second hole down; that hole was officially a vote for right-wing candidate Pat Buchanan.
(Although the butterfly ballot got all the attention, other ballot-design flaws in Florida 2000 in five other counties probably caused 6700 lost presidential votes as well, according to Professor Douglas W. Jones of the University of Iowa.)
Back in 2006, the Sarasota touch-screen machines showed one contest per page, like this:
But on one of the pages, two different contests were listed:
At top there is the 2-candidate race between Vern Buchanan (REP) and Christine Jennings (DEM), and at bottom there is a 6-candidate race for Governor. The bottom race is more prominent in two ways: it occupies more space, and it has a boldface, blue-background heading, STATE. You might think, “I’d never miss that!” and there’s an 86% chance that you’re right, which is to say, about 14.9% of the voters did undervote in the top race, where the normal undervote rate for congressional races is about 1.2%.
From this fiasco came a very simple principle of touch-screen ballot design: if you’re going to put only one contest per page, then stick to only one contest per page! And perhaps, don’t let voters move to the next page if there’s an undervote on this page, unless they indicate in a positive way that they wish to undervote.
The 2018 Senate race in Broward County
This year in Broward County, the optical-scan ballot looks like this. The race for Senate is hidden in plain sight at bottom left, just under the instructions in English, the instructions in Spanish, and the instructions in Creole. Those of you who don’t read Creole very fluently might stop reading at that point, and skip to the top of the middle column. In that case, you’d be in danger of undervoting in the Senate race.
The most official stylebook in the United States for designing optical-scan ballots is the 2007 publication of the Election Assistance Commission, Effective Designs for the Administration of Federal Elections, Section 3: Optical scan ballots.
The EAC’s publication uses this ballot as an example:
The Broward ballot violates these EAC guidelines:
- §3.11 “Ballot instructions, running either vertically or horizontally, must be self-contained and separated from contest data. Vertical instruction treatments cannot share column space with contests—test voters often overlooked races located immediately beneath vertical instructions.” This is the smoking gun. The Broward County Supervisor of Elections, Brenda Snipes, did not follow simple and clear guidelines from an Election Assistance Commission document that must surely be required reading for anyone in this country designing optical-scan ballots.
- §3.3 “Use one language per ballot . . . display no more than two languages simultaneously.” This made a difference! note that in neighboring Miami, where the op-scan ballot displayed shorter instructions in only two languages, with the first contest starting below that in the first column, there were far fewer undervotes.
- §3.11 “apply color only to instructions.” The EAC ballot’s instruction block has a light blue background, whereas Broward’s instruction background-fill was the same as the contests.
By the way, if you’re not sure which party those 26,000 voters might have intended to vote for in the Senate race, look again at Broward ballot. In the race right below the Senate race, one party didn’t even nominate a candidate to run in that Congressional district.