Complaining about the US ballot is centuries-old American tradition. Every election cycle, critics lament how unwieldy, ugly, or downright confusing the voting form is. With the spike in voting by mail this year amid the Covid-19 pandemic, many more are noticing how puzzling the piece of paper truly is as they fill out their ballots at home. Turns out, the ballot’s confusing design is less a weakness of America’s participatory democracy than a sign of its robustness. Americans can cast a vote several ways. They can go to a polling station on Election Day or do it in advance via a mail-in absentee ballot; many states allow early in-person voting as well.Voting online isn’t widely available for federal elections. This year, 32 states and the District of Columbia are accepting ballots submitted via a mobile app, fax, e-mail, or an online portal, but this method is mostly reserved for military personnel serving overseas or civilians living abroad. While countries like Australia, Brazil, Canada, Estonia, Norway, and Switzerland have have embraced some form of remote voting via the internet, experts caution that it’s not useful to compare them with the American context. That’s because the US operates on a much larger and complicated scale.And so, old-fashioned paper is still the most common and secure voting medium in the US. An estimated 95% of voters will manually fill out and send forms by postal mail, deposit in a drop box, or feed their paper ballots to a machine that produces an auditable paper record at a voting center.
Many will remember the infamously confusing Palm Beach County butterfly ballot, which led to 26,000 misvotes, a recount, and ultimately handed George W. Bush the presidency in 2000. Twenty years later, we have new ballot design problems to deal with—and there’s one you’ve probably never heard of. Most of the ballot design flaws detailed in a recent resource from the Brennan Center for Justice seem rather innocuous. But there’s one in that, if fixed, could reduce margin of error and thereby make the voting system overall more reflective of voters’ intent: ballot design that splits one contest into two columns on a bubble-style page. There are a few other permutations of this layout, and they all share one key flaw: They split up information that should be categorized together. The first contest on a ballot might fall below the ballot instructions in the first column, causing voters to miss it. A contest might be split into two columns because there’s a large number of candidates to consider—or, on an electronic voting system, there might be two contests on the same page.
Florida: Here’s (more) evidence Bill Nelson suffered from bad ballot design in 2018 | Langston Taylor/Tampa Bay Times
Evidence continues to mount that shows former U.S. Senator Bill Nelson’s race for re-election in 2018 was hampered by a ballot design quirk. Florida has already enacted a law that would standardize ballots to avoid a repeat of what happened in part of heavily-Democratic Broward County: a ballot design that made the Senate race “easy to overlook.” It was immediately clear after the Nov. 6 election that far more voters than expected were leaving the Senate box blank. Many of those voters supported other Democrats, like the losing candidate for Governor, Andrew Gillum. In a new academic paper presented Thursday at the Election Sciences, Reform, & Administration Conference, two researchers looked beyond vote totals, drilling down to the individual ballot level. What they found was this: In Broward County, voters who skipped the Senate race likely did so by accident, rather than purposely avoiding the race. Broward County ballots put voting instructions in the first column, rather than stripped across the top. That design pushed the Senate race far down the page, isolating it from other marquee contests.
Whitney Quesenbery knows a well-designed ballot when she sees it: lower-case letters, left-aligned text, a clean sans-serif font. Quesenbery has been assessing ballot design for nearly two decades. Los Angeles County’s is one of the best she has seen. “Look at those instructions,” she says, admiring the ballot’s simple wording and standout color. “They’re beautiful.” A co-founder of the Center for Civic Design, Quesenbery regularly advises election boards on best practices for their ballots. Some places, like Los Angeles, have incorporated the design principles espoused by the center. But, Quesenbery says, many other counties are stuck using ballots that look as if they came out of the last century. “There are still people voting on pre-2000 voting systems,” she says. “I do.”
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.
As Virginia prepares for the November midterm elections, the State Board of Elections approved a number of policy changes aimed at clarifying the voting process and making ballots easier to understand. On March 23, the board met for the first time since the Northam administration was sworn in. The panel unanimously voted to roll out new ballot standards for the Nov. 6 general election. The goal of the standards is clarification – including allowing candidates to use nicknames, more readable fonts and user-friendly instructions on the ballots. Each ballot will include instructions on how to vote. It will also state, “If you want to change a vote or if you have made a mistake, ask an election worker for another ballot. If you make marks on the ballot besides filling in the oval, your votes may not be counted.”
Virginia: After irregular ballot helped decide a Virginia House election, state aims to make ballot more clear | The Virginian-Pilot
It was the ballot seen around the world. One voter’s flawed attempt to be counted in Newport News in December helped decide a pivotal Virginia House election and political control of the chamber. The bubbles for both candidates, David Yancey and Shelly Simonds, were filled in, but Simonds’ had a slash through it. A court had to decide the voter’s intent, which tied the race and setup the infamous name drawing out of the bowl. But had the voter simply asked for another ballot after his or her mistake, the whole thing could have been avoided.
Election Day 2017 seems to have gone smoothly. There were few contests of major consequence and turnout was low – with Virginia the most notable exception. Election integrity – the extent to which the outcome of the election matches the will of the voters – was not an issue in the news. Things could, however, be different in 2018. Concern over election integrity could become amplified if turnout is high and margins close. Given the stakes in the 2018 midterms – now less than a year away – and other concerns such as widespread reports about Russian hacking, now is the time when election officials must begin the critical work of ensuring the integrity of the vote. When most people think about threats to election integrity, security and fraud are the primary concerns. For example, were the ballots or the election totals hacked? Were ballot boxes stuffed? Were there ballots cast by people who were not eligible to vote?
THE Fiji Labour Party says the current ballot paper design withholds information that will assist voters in easily identifying the candidate of their choice. Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry made the comment in response to a Tebbutt-Times Poll on the ballot papers that showed majority of people prefer having photos of the candidates alongside their candidate number on the ballot paper. “FLP’s position is that the ballot paper should include the names of the candidates with their photographs and their party acronyms and symbols,” he said. “It is wrong to withhold vital information which would assist the voters to cast their votes with confidence.
Netherlands: With 28 parties running, Dutch voters have to use these really huge ballots | The Washington Post
The Dutch are voting, and much of the world is watching to see whether far-right populist Geert Wilders will come out on top. But Wilders and his party, the Party for Freedom (PVV), are far from the only force in the election. A record 28 parties are competing for the 150 seats in the lower house of Dutch parliament, known as the Tweede Kamer. In practical terms, this has a very obvious effect on voting day: The Dutch ballots are enormous. So enormous, in fact, that people can’t stop sharing photos of them.
The ballots are being recounted, but it’s not for the presidential election. This time it’s for Mobile County’s pay as you go measure. It was the last measure on the ballot last Tuesday. And according to Election Systems and Software, the company that runs the ballot machines, a wrong test pattern was used to program the machines. That resulted in 99.7 percent of votes favoring the measure. While many voters called in with concerns and filed complaints, it took a few days to figure out exactly what happened. The company has since taken accountability. “We obviously made a mistake originally for election day, we regret that. We’ve gone back in we’ve corrected the error there in the personal program, we’ve marked ballots we’ve double checked, we’ve triple checked, we’ve run test we’re confident today is 100 percent accurate,” said Mark Kelley with Election Systems and Software.
The Mobile County Probate Court website still shows that the County’s “pay as you go” construction measure passed with 99.7 percent of the vote. “This was like the perfect storm,” said Judge Don Davis, Mobile Probate Court. But as we’ve learned that’s incorrect. Judge Davis had to wait to figure it all out before he could say there was a problem. … At least 12 complaints were filed with the State Secretary’s Office over these results, leaving Judge Davis in the hot seat. But this Monday a representative for the voting machine is taking the blame. “This issue an issue Election Systems & Software performed, it’s a human issue. The machines counted as they were told to count and the oval was not in the right place,” said Kathy Rogers, Election Systems & Software. Essentially the wrong test ballot was used for the machines to count up the votes.
When a voter heads to the polls, any number of factors may influence how she casts her vote: party affiliation, her impression of the candidates — or even the design of the ballot itself. The visual layout of a ballot can have a surprising effect on a voter’s decision. And anyone who recalls the 2000 presidential election, which drew national attention to some confusing elements of the Florida ballot, can tell you that designers don’t always get it right. So, who are the people designing the ballots? That depends on where you’re asking. “There is no federal ballot design authority,” Dana Chisnell tells NPR’s Rachel Martin. Chisnell is co-director of the Center for Civic Design, a nonprofit aimed at developing best practices for election materials. “How ballots get designed is really a combination of local election officials and what their printers can do, if it’s a print-based ballot, and what the computers can do, if it’s an electronic voting system.”
This Nov. 8, even if you manage to be registered in time and have the right identification, there is something else that could stop you from exercising your right to vote. The ballot. Specifically, the ballot’s design. Bad ballot design gained national attention almost 16 years ago when Americans became unwilling experts in butterflies and chads. The now-infamous Palm Beach County butterfly ballot, which interlaced candidate names along a central column of punch holes, was so confusing that many voters accidentally voted for Patrick Buchanan instead of Al Gore. We’ve made some progress since then, but we still likely lose hundreds of thousands of votes every election year due to poor ballot design and instructions. In 2008 and 2010 alone, almost half a million people did not have their votes counted due to mistakes filling out the ballot. Bad ballot design also contributes to long lines on election day. And the effects are not the same for all people: the disenfranchised are disproportionately poor, minority, elderly and disabled.
The San Diego County Registrar of Voters office and city of San Diego leaders Wednesday confirmed that a design flaw with the ballot could impact voting in next month’s election. Officials say if voters use a felt-tip pen, or a similar type of pen, to fill in “Yes” on Measure E, the ink can bleed through to the other side, marking the “No” bubble for Measure K. Registrar of Voters Michael Vu “has acknowledged the issue and agreed to manually examine all the ballots while they are being counted, but voters should be informed of proactive measures they can take to ensure their votes are cast and counted as intended before a problem occurs.” San Diego resident Kaia Los Huertos supports Measure K, which would require all election processes for elected city offices to consist of a primary election in June and a runoff election in November for the top two candidates.
Voter turnout in the United States is abysmal, far worse than it is in most other developed countries. In 2014, U.S. voter participation was the lowest it had been in more than 70 years—with less than half the population voting in 43 states. In general elections, for which voter turnout is typically highest, there are still some 88 million adults in the United States who are eligible to vote, but don’t. Even among those who do vote, an alarming number of ballots don’t end up getting counted. In each of the presidential elections that took place between 1992 and 2004, according to a 2005 analysis in the University of Chicago’s Journal of Politics, more than 2 million votes were cast but never tallied—totaling nearly 9 million votes that went uncounted because they were blank, marked incorrectly, or otherwise spoiled. “It’s a wicked problem,” says Whitney Quesenbery, a co-director at the Center for Civic Design. “We’ve always been in this battle between good, fast, and easy—but still accurate, reliable, accessible and all those other good things voting needs to be.”
California: More than 235,000 votes didn’t count in June’s U.S. Senate race, and some think ballot designs are to blame | Los Angeles Times
A bumper crop of U.S. Senate candidates and the resulting challenge in designing ballots may be why more than 235,000 California voters had their selections for the race rejected in June. “Our research shows a clear problem with complicated ballot designs,” said Philip Muller, an election data analyst whose firm creates online voter guides. Muller and partner Davit Avagyan sorted through election results from all but six California counties to see how many “over-votes” were cast in the U.S. Senate race — ballots on which voters chose two or more candidates. Because elections officials have no way of knowing which of those candidates was the preferred choice, those Senate votes weren’t counted. Election officials warned this past spring of potential confusion with a ballot listing 34 candidates who were in the race to replace Sen. Barbara Boxer. Under the state’s top-two primary rules, only Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez advanced to the Nov. 8 general election.
Voting Blogs: First-in-the-nation course on election design | Whitney Quesenbery and Dana Chisnell/electionlineWeekly
If you want to bring out your inner election designer, or just learn how identify good and bad election design, there’s a new opportunity designed just for you. As part of the first-in-the-nation Certificate in Election Administration at the University of Minnesota, we are really proud to be teaching the first-in-the-nation course on election design. The program is the brainchild of Doug Chapin, aiming at current and future election administrators and anyone interested in civic engagement. The course is entirely online, and built on the idea that adults learn best by doing. Through small, weekly assignments students practice new skills with real election materials. We will be there with students the whole way, with group discussions and collaborative reviews because we’ve seen that the best ideas happen when there’s a place to brainstorm and people to do it with. Usability testing will help students learn from their own voters (and to see how to make it part of all of their work).
Chaos has descended upon the nation’s polling booths, with voters struggling to understand changes to above-the-line voting on the Senate voting paper. New Senate voting rules, introduced in March as a way to stymie the smaller parties, mean that voters must number at least six boxes above the line on the Senate ballot paper for their vote to count. However, as the Australian Electoral Commission admitted yesterday, voters who vote 1 above the line will also have their vote counted, provided there is nothing else wrong with the ballot paper. Confusion has been heightened by a new online tool, created by the AEC, which allows voters to “practise’’ their Senate vote ahead of polling day.
Campaigns routinely spend millions of dollars on get-out-the-vote drives, but it’s money down the drain if voters can’t figure out the ballot. That’s where Drew Davies comes in. The college art major has parlayed his knack for graphic design into a career as one of the nation’s premier ballot fix-it guys. His job description may come as a surprise to those who assume that the federal government has ironed out the kinks since the 2000 presidential election uproar in Florida. As Mr. Davies can attest, there are still causes for concern. He sees ballots jammed with races, impossibly tiny print and fill-in bubbles that don’t quite align with candidates’ names. “It’s not just about prettying things up,” said Mr. Davies, who founded Oxide Design in 2001 after earning a fine arts degree from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “Design is affecting our democracy. It’s affecting your lives. Look at the election in 2000: Bad design affected your life.” His work with the nonprofit Center for Civic Design to create 10 pocket-sized field guides for state and local election officials has been honored by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City, which will showcase the pamphlets as part of an exhibit starting Sept. 30.
California: How California’s U.S. Senate ballot could cause problems for the June 7 primary | Los Angeles Times
If elections officials could send just one message to California’s 17.2 million registered voters about the U.S. Senate primary in June, it would probably be this: Read the instructions carefully. “It’s not necessarily intuitive on how to properly mark this ballot,” said Kammi Foote, registrar of voters for Inyo County. And a mistake could keep a ballot from counting. On primary day, the race to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer will feature 34 candidates. Only four of those candidates have received appreciable support in public polling so far, and five will appear at the first Senate debate Monday night. But the full field is larger than any single roster of statewide contenders since the colossal list of 135 candidates who ran in the 2003 special election that recalled then-Gov. Gray Davis. (To make the ballot, candidates must pay about $3,500 or collect 10,000 signatures.)
Lots of Republicans voting in today’s Ohio primary are confused, and understandably so. The Republican presidential candidates’ names are listed twice on the ballot, once under the heading “For Delegates-at-Large and Alternates-at-Large” and again under “For District Delegates and District Alternates.” If this weren’t enough, different candidates’ names appear under the first and second contests on some Ohio ballots. Mike Huckabee and/or Rick Santorum, both of whom have withdrawn, will appear on the “District Delegates” contest in some congressional districts but not others (see p. 7 of this directive). What makes this a real head-scratcher is that the state’s Republican primary is winner-take-all, with the highest vote-getter getting all of Ohio’s 66 delegates. The Secretary of State’s office will reportedly release vote totals for both the “Delegates-at-Large” and “District Delegates” contests, but the state party says that it plans to consider only the at-large delegate vote in determining who gets Ohio’s delegates. And the “District Delegates” contest will appear at the top of page on at least some ballots (like this one), with the “Delegates-at-Large” contest – the one that matters – further down on the left side. This problem is reminiscent of problematic ballot formats in past elections, like Florida’s 2006 election for the 13th Congressional District, California’s 2003 recall election, and even the infamous butterfly ballot in Florida’s 2000 presidential election. It’s possible that some voters will inadvertently fail to cast a vote that counts.
Every Republican primary voter in Ohio will have two opportunities to vote for president, in a ballot twist that only escalates the potential confusion caused by the party’s large and fractious field of candidates. GOP ballots for the March 15 primary feature two boxes for president: one for designating an at-large presidential delegate and one for designating a district delegate. It’s a carry-over from a time when Ohio’s Republican vote was divided proportionally, rather than in the winner-take-all fashion being used in 2016. The two boxes raise obvious questions: Do voters get two votes? Can conflicted voters split their vote, or do votes for two candidates cancel each other out? If only one of the two boxes is filled in, does the person’s vote still count? Ohio never changed a requirement that both boxes be listed, and the secretary of state’s office says both will also tallied. But the Ohio Republican Party says only one will count.
New Zealand: NZ First calls for Hindi flag votes to be nullified, after translation differs | Stuff.co.nz
A slight change in the Hindi translation of flag referendum instructions is “misleading”, claim NZ First. Therefore, party leader Winston Peters has called for all votes from Hindi-speaking people to be nullified. The pamphlet titled ‘How to vote’ accompanies the ballot papers, and sets out the first step in English: “Tick the flag you want to be the New Zealand flag”. However, the Hindi translation reads: “Tick the flag you want to be the new New Zealand flag” – the word ‘new’ had been inserted.
One of the basic insights of behavioral science is that the format of a choice set—how the options are arranged on a page—can significantly shape our decisions. This is true when ordering a meal at a restaurant, but also at the ballot box, as the design of a paper ballot can influence which candidates we end up voting for. For example, studies led by Jon Krosnick at Stanford University have shown that candidates at the top of the ballot get, on average, about 2 percentage points more votes than they would have if listed farther down. This primacy effect even holds in national elections, when voters are more familiar with the candidates. When the name order of candidates was randomized on the California state ballot in the 2000 election, George W. Bush’s vote total was 9 percentage points higher in districts where his name appeared first versus last, Krosnick says. To deal with this bias, many states have begun randomizing the order of candidates, taking steps to ensure that a cognitive quirk doesn’t determine the winner of the election.
As the count for the NSW Legislative Council creeps to a conclusion, there remains an outside possibility that an error in the NSW Electoral Commission’s iVote system could put the result at risk. For the first two days of voting for the election, the electronic ballot paper used for iVoting contained an error. Two of the groups on the ballot paper, the Outdoor Recreation Party in Group B, and the Animal Justice Party in Group C, were shown on the ballot paper without an above the line voting square. Around 19,000 iVotes were cast before the error was spotted. The error did not prevent votes being cast for candidate of the two parties, but it made voting for the two parties above the line impossible.
While security fears always get a regular airing in debates about electronic voting, another question that has so far escaped attention is whether electronic voting itself can change who people vote for. We have known for decades that the structure of paper ballots has an impact on the way people vote. We know there is a small bias in favour higher placed candidates on the vertical lower house ballot paper, and a left to right bias on horizontal upper house ballot papers. This bias by position is as a result of the order in which people read the ballot paper. Some electors seem to stop and vote for the first candidate or party they recognise rather than look at all options. It can also lead to donkey voting, where people simply number candidates top to bottom or left to right. These factors get worse the larger the ballot paper. Some of the giant ballot papers in recent years have shown evidence of voter confusion as voters have struggled to find the parties they do know amongst a profusion of micro party offerings.
Australia: There’s a huge design flaw in the NSW online voting system which Labor wouldn’t be happy about | Business Insider
New South Wales goes to the polls today and despite incumbent Liberal Premier Mike Baird being the clear favourite there’s a huge design flaw on the online voting platform which could cost the Labor government votes. It’s all got to do with the user experience of the NSW Electoral Commission’s online iVote system which is clunky to start with. After registering to use the platform and figuring out how to commence the voting process the ballot paper for the lower house appears on the screen, all candidates can be viewed, you can scroll up and down, fine. The problem becomes apparent when voting above or below the line. Even when the paper is enlarged on a 24 inch monitor, it doesn’t render to fit so this is what voters see. However, to the right of that are all the other options (including the Labor party). And while there are big red arrows at the top, that’s not where a user usually focusses their attention, a user experience designer, who wished to not be named, told Business Insider.
Wisconsin: Election officials ask judge to toss suit over ballot design | Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
State election officials asked a judge Tuesday to throw out a lawsuit over the design of the Nov. 4 ballots, saying the campaigns of two Republican lawmakers did not follow proper procedures in bringing their court challenge. Even if the case is allowed to proceed, the election officials argued, the judge can consider changing the ballots in just four places — Racine, Walworth, Columbia and Jefferson counties. Those who brought the suit can’t argue over the ballots in the state’s 68 other counties because they either don’t represent them or the ballots in those counties don’t include the features that are the subject of their suit, they said. The filing came a day before Waukesha County Circuit Judge James Kieffer is to hold a hearing to consider whether to order election officials to make changes to the ballots six weeks before the election. The campaigns of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) last week filed their suit contending ballots designed by the state Government Accountability Board are confusing. Ballots’ formats vary by county, but if successful, the suit could result in ballots in some areas being redesigned and reprinted.
Indiana: Faintly, the fine print – Printed boxes on absentee ballots too light, longtime voter discovers | Terre Haute Tribune Star
In the warm sunlight bathing the front porch of Margaret Taylor’s South 14th Street home, faint boxes are barely visible on her absentee ballot for the May 6 Democratic Party primary. According to instructions on the ballot, the boxes are vital because they are what voters must fill in to have their votes counted for various candidates. Voters must fill in the boxes across from the names of the candidates they support. However, when Taylor stands up and takes her ballot into her home, the reduced lighting makes the lightly shaded boxes nearly invisible. “I have a lot of trouble seeing it,” Taylor said. “You gotta really look hard.” Taylor, 82, a former Democratic Party vice precinct committee person and longtime activist in local politics, has been voting since she was legally eligible, and this is the first time she’s seen a ballot like this one, she said. She worries that the boxes may be difficult for older people or those with weak eyesight to see. “I think it’s unfair to everyone on that ballot,” she said, adding that other people she has spoken with share her concern.