July 20, 2008 – The notorious butterfly ballot that Palm Beach County, Florida election officials used in the 2000 election is probably the most infamous of all election design snafus. It was one of many political, legal, and election administration missteps that plunged a presidential election into turmoil and set off a series of events that led to, among other things, a vast overhaul of the country’s election administration, including the greatest change in voting technology in United States history.
Yet, ironically, eight years after the 2000 election, and billions of dollars spent on new voting technology, the problems caused by poor ballot design have not been fully and effectively addressed on a national level. Year in and year out, we see the same mistakes in ballot design, with the same results: tens, and sometimes hundreds, of thousands of voters disenfranchised by confusing ballot design and instructions, sometimes raising serious questions about whether the intended choice of the voters was certified as the winner.
Problems with voting technology have, rightly, attracted much public attention. Scores of independent reports—including a major study published by the Brennan Center—have documented the vulnerabilities of electronic voting machines. More importantly, voting system failures lead to long lines on Election Day, voters being turned away at the polls, and lost votes. These are serious problems, and we must do what we can to ensure that poor technology and procedures do not continue to disenfranchise voters.
At the same time, when it comes to ensuring that votes are accurately recorded and tallied, there is a respectable argument that poor ballot design and confusing instructions have resulted in far more lost votes than software glitches, programming errors, or machine breakdowns. As this report demonstrates, poor ballot design and instructions have caused the loss of tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of votes in nearly every election year.
While all groups of voters are affected by poorly designed ballots and badly drafted instructions, these problems disproportionately affect low-income voters, new voters, and elderly voters. All too often, the loss of votes and rate of errors resulting from these mistakes are greater than the margin of victory between the two leading candidates. As the examples in this report show, problems caused by poor ballot design and instructions recur in American elections, regardless of the type of voting technology a jurisdiction has used.
Some have dismissed the degree to which poor ballot design undermines democracy by arguing that voters only have themselves to blame if they fail to properly navigate design flaws. This is unfair. Candidates should win or lose elections based upon whether or not they are preferred by a majority of voters, not on whether they have the largest number of supporters who—as a result of education and experience—have greater facility navigating unnecessarily complicated interfaces or complex instructions, or because fewer of their supporters are elderly or have reading disabilities. Nor should candidates win elections because ballot designs happened to make it more difficult for voters supporting their opponents to accurately cast their votes.