A Tale In Three Ballots

Bo Lipari published his testimony on the recent New York Primary <read>

It is all interesting reading. I find two points of particular interest.  Bo’s comments on how excessive problems were attributed to the optical scanners and on the limitations of New York’s full face ballot requirement, that is not all that different from Connecticut’s:

media reports too often implied that all problems were machine problems, but in fact while some voting machines certainly did fail to perform as expected, these reports were in the minority. By far the largest number of problem reports were administrative and legislative issue…

Hard to Read Ballots – The single most common complaint was ballots that were difficult to read. Let me be perfectly clear – ballot problem reports are not a machine problem, they are a political problem. New York Election Law requires the full face ballot, a grid layout where all candidates in all races are traditionally presented on a single page. Further, all candidates from the same party must appear in a single row or column. These and other requirements, like the confusing but obligatory party icon displayed in each box (which is all too easy to confuse with the fill-in oval), leave no choice but to use lettering far too small to be legible for far too many voters.

In the past, New York’s Legislature has not been inclined to eliminate the full face ballot despite calls to do so from civic groups. Truth be told, the full face ballot layout reinforces straight party line voting-it’s easy and natural to go straight down or across the party line filling in boxes, and so political parties tend to favor it. The full face ballot is a holdover from the days of lever machines and like those machines, it’s time has passed. New York’s current ballot design is a usability nightmare for voters. The grid layout is unclear and confusing; the small boxes are filled with unnecessary symbols; the typeface is far too small to be readable. Far better ballot designs are not just possible, they are necessary. I call on the Legislature to change New York State Election law and abolish the full face ballot requirement at the start of the new session.

The recent primary clearly demonstrated that New York voters desperately need a new, usable ballot design. Senators, you are the ones with the power, and the responsibility, to accomplish it.

I have been meaning to bring up ballot design for a while.  This is a good time with Bo’s excellent introduction to the subject.

Look at a sample Connecticut ballot it is in a grid just like a lever machine, one line per party and boxes for each candidate.  To most Connecticut voters this has been the way it has always been – the only way it can be. Most of us are clueless to other designs except for a vague understanding that in Florida in 2000 there was something worse called a “butterfly ballot” and something we nutmeggers understand how to read, not at all, the “punchcard ballot.”

What could possibly be better or worse than our familiar ballot?

Lets start with worse. New York’s ballots are similar to ours, but they require a complete full face ballot, with all the questions, offices, and candidates on one side of one page. In Connecticut we can use multiple sides and multiple pages for complex elections.  It gets worse, New York City requires candidate names in four languages and a party symbol in each box, take a look at a sample NY City Ballot courtesy of the NY League Of Women Voters. Part of which is below:

Now lets explore better. Another way of creating a ballot in other states is the so called, not partisan ballot, with each race getting a separate box on the ballot and the candidates listed with their party but without a party line.  Voters have to work a bit harder if they want to vote strictly along party lines and hopefully think a bit more about individual candidates and races. Here is an example from Minnesota.

Now that Connecticut voters are used to optical scan ballots, perhaps it is time to revisit ballot design in the “land of steady habits”. Perhaps one of those habits could be continuous improvement! We hear a lot about increasing participation in elections. Creating a better ballot might well increase the number of voters willing to vote, and their satisfaction with the process.

There is more to it than simply changing laws, and moving names and boxes around. The Brennan Center for Justice has a report, Better Ballots, discussing extensive ballot design considerations including usability testing – actually testing to see how well voters understand the ballot! Take a look at page 23 of their report to see a before and after example of a ballot similar to Minnesota’s. <Brennan Center Report>


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