WASHINGTON — Poorly designed ballots continue to plague U.S. elections, even after Congress set aside $3 billion to overhaul voting systems to prevent a recurrence of the flawed Florida ballots that deadlocked the 2000 presidential race, a study out today concludes.
Problems with confusing paper ballots in 2002, absentee ballots in 2004 and touch-screen ballots in 2006 led thousands of voters to skip over key races or make mistakes that invalidated their votes, according to the study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
“In the big election meltdowns … where thousands of votes were lost, ballot design was the primary cause,” says Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center.
Ballot designs could play a big role in mistakes made at the polls this fall because of an infusion of new voters who registered for this year’s presidential race and the introduction of new voting machines in parts of 11 states with 15 million potential voters. Since passage of the Help America Vote Act in 2002, states have spent more than $2 billion in mostly federal funds to overhaul their voting systems.
Congress approved spending of up to $3 billion because of problems in the 2000 presidential race in Florida. A deciding factor in that race was the confusion caused in Palm Beach County by the “butterfly ballot,” which required voters to punch a hole beside their candidate’s name in a strip between two facing pages that listed the presidential contenders.
Despite all the spending since then, mostly on new electronic voting systems, not enough attention has been paid to ballot design, the new study warns. “There has not been a documented instance where a computer has fouled up the vote by itself,” agrees Kimball Brace of the consulting firm Election Data Services.
The study’s conclusion, endorsed by many federal and state election overseers, is leading counties and election system manufacturers to improve ballot designs by the November election.
Starting this week in Ohio, ballot design experts will show officials how to avoid the kind of voter confusion in Florida’s 13th Congressional District in 2006. More than 18,000 Sarasota County voters skipped that race, which appeared above a more prominently displayed race for governor on the same screen. Republican Vern Buchanan won the congressional race by 369 votes.
BETTER BALLOT: Varied ballot designs are ‘literacy test for voters’ By Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
Since 2000, when conservative Pat Buchanan did mysteriously well in Florida’s Palm Beach County at Democrat Al Gore’s expense, the way ballots are designed and explained has never stopped vexing voters.
About 12,000 presidential primary votes went uncounted in Los Angeles County this year because voters didn’t realize they had to fill in two ovals — one for party affiliation and one for candidate — on what came to be called a “double-bubble” ballot.
More than 18,000 voters in Sarasota County, Fla., didn’t choose either congressional candidate in 2006, in part because a more prominent race for governor was displayed on the same page on the touch-screen machines.
In the 2004 presidential race, nearly 3,000 absentee voters in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County mistakenly tried to line up arrows in a booklet with numbers on a ballot, negating their votes. Voters from Illinois to Iowa to Wisconsin met similar fates in 2002 because of poorly designed ballots.
Heading into the 2008 presidential election, officials who have spent billions on new technology are turning to designers for advice on such basic tenets as large type, clear language and simple layouts.
“Maybe we just should have designed a better ballot way back then,” says Oregon’s John Lindback, president of the National Association of State Election Directors. “It might have avoided the rush to touch-screen voting machines.”
A report scheduled for release today by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law shows that poor ballot design and instructions have caused the loss of hundreds of thousands of votes. Because there are no federal regulations, ballots vary significantly between and within states. “It’s kind of a literacy test for voters,” says Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center.
Studies have shown that those most likely to be confused are elderly, low-income and newly registered voters — factors that could influence this year’s race for the White House. “You tend to find the biggest problem in precincts with large numbers” of those voters, says David Kimball, associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, a co-author of the report.
Election directors from counties that experienced recent ballot design problems say more attention should have been paid to the issue since 2000 than to the headlong rush to replace entire voting systems. Some counties in California, Florida, Ohio and elsewhere are dealing with their third systems in eight years:
•Los Angeles County Clerk Dean Logan says ballot designs and instructions are “the element of the elections process where we have the most opportunity between now and November to try and prevent inadvertent errors that voters might make.”
•Sarasota County elections director Kathy Dent says the changes from paper ballots to electronic machines and back to paper ballots has forced officials to spend more time on ballot preparation than ever. “We could have continued to use the punch cards in Sarasota,” she says.
•Cuyahoga County elections director Jane Platten says a clear, concise ballot isn’t easy to produce in Ohio, where state law demands ballot issues be printed in full. Every page costs 45 cents per voter — and the county has 1.2 million registered voters.