Political Animal


July 31, 2012 1:51 PM How To Design Ballots If You Actually Want People To Vote

By Ed Kilgore

There’s a comprehensive report just out from the Brennan Center For Justice of NYU Law School that explains how that ol’ devil from 2000, poor ballot design, can have a negative impact on the right to vote, and shows how such outrages can be prevented. Here’s a quick summary:

American elections are marred by major design problems. As smartphones and computer tablets have convinced many people and businesses of the importance of good design and usability, elections have changed far more slowly.
•Poor design increases the risk of lost or misrecorded votes among all voters, but the risk is even greater for particular groups, including low-income voters and the elderly.
•As documented in this report, several hundred thousand votes were not counted in the 2008 and 2010 elections because of voter mistakes, in some cases affecting the outcome of critical contests.
•The rise of absentee and provisional voting since 2000 has only increased the importance of design in elections. We estimate that in the 2008 and 2010 general elections combined, as many as 400,000 people had their absentee or provisional ballot rejected because they made technical mistakes completing the forms or preparing and returning the envelope.
•There are simple measures election officials can take before November to cure design defects in ballots, voting machines, and voter instructions.

•We encourage election officials to review lost vote data from previous elections, conduct usability tests, and work with experts to find design problems and solutions before this November’s election.

Now all this sound advice depends on the interest in and willingness of election officials to take steps necessary to let people make their voting preferences known. And unfortunately, in this election more than others, you can’t take that for granted.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on July 31, 2012 2:23 PM:

    Never mind the paper ballots, the provisional ones, or the absentee ones - not that they're NOT a concern.

    But does anyone have definitive proof that the problems with the electronic voting machines have been permanently fixed?

    Since many nations have eliminated voting on electronic voting machines, my best guess is - NO!

    And ain't it ironic, that the nation that was once called to oversee other countries elections to make sure they were fair, now, if it doesn't suppress its own people's right to vote, then also can't count them properly and accurately when they do?

    Something tell me that ain't ironic - but planned.

  • jpeckjr on July 31, 2012 3:42 PM:

    Ballot design is probably driven more by counting machine design than by either making voting easier for voters or what voting officials want. Counting machine design is driven more by speed of getting returns to journalists and candidates than by accuracy.

    In my community, all election results are provisional and unofficial until the counting is complete and official results are certified by the county clerk, which takes about a month. For example, mail-in ballots received on election day are not counted until the vote-in-person ballots are counted. Mail-in ballots received five days or more prior to election day are counted as they come in.

    More than once, as a campaign volunteer, I have been at the courthouse to report results as they come in. The pressure to get it done fast is strong.

  • shivas on July 31, 2012 4:38 PM:

    I would take the Republican argument in favor of the sanctity of the vote one step further. I would make the voting system the most secure and reliable that it can be. Why is it that when you use a bank debit card or credit card everything is accurate down to the penny and every transaction can be traced and verified, yet the voting system is riddled with errors, uncertainty, and the potential for mischief?

    I would be willing to bet that there is more voter fraud associated with the voting apparatus than with individuals voting illegally. Why not issue PIN protected chip cards to every citizen that can be used in elections. It would bring the archaic US voting system into the 21st century.