Designing better ballots

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?

However, there is another threat to election integrity that has received increasing attention from election officials and researchers like me over the past dozen or so years: voting system usability. That is, does what actually gets recorded on to the ballots accurately reflect the will of the voters?

All the security in the world means little if ballots are inaccurate.

But how could what’s on the ballots themselves be wrong?

Good design is critical

A Florida election official examines a ‘butterfly ballot’ AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Incorrect ballots happen when the ballot itself is badly designed and that poor design leads voters to make errors.

While concerns about voter fraud are mostly unfounded, major elections – including one U.S. presidential election – have almost certainly been decided by poor ballot design. In 2000, Palm Beach County, Florida deployed a now-infamous “butterfly ballot” with a two-column design that caused thousands of likely Al Gore voters to either cast a vote for Pat Buchanan or cast an invalid ballot.

In that same election, Duval County, Florida saw over 20,000 votes in a highly Democratic county thrown out because the presidential race was split across the front and back of the ballot, and voters voted on both sides.

Either one of these poorly designed ballots alone would have tipped the state of Florida, and thus the presidency, as Gore lost Florida by fewer than 400 votes.

Similarly, a combination of poor screen layout and an unsophisticated computer touchscreen interface likely turned the outcome of a U.S. congressional race in Sarasota, Florida in 2006.

Even apparently well-designed paper ballots are not immune to problems. Thousands of ballots were contested in the 2008 Minnesota Senate race, many of them thrown out because voters attempted to correct mistakes on their ballots rather than making the effort to get a new one. Whether these errors determined the result is unclear, but the state and the candidates spent substantial time and money sorting out the outcome.