Thursday, August 28, 2008

Democracy and Design

After the controversy over Palm Beach County’s infamous “butterfly ballot” (left) in 2000, there was talk about improving ballot design so that voters wouldn't miscast their votes again. Two election cycles later, a study has found that ballots around the country are still far too confusing and that poor design and instructions have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of voters in the last several federal elections.

The problem of badly designed ballots — which affects all kinds of voting technology, from paper ballots to electronic machines — is likely to be important this fall because there will be many first-time voters, and many jurisdictions have introduced new voting technology.

The butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County, Fla., was one of the great debacles in election history. It was so confusing that it was hard to tell which hole to punch to cast a vote for a particular candidate. Many people intending to vote for Al Gore accidentally punched the hole for Patrick Buchanan or punched holes for both Mr. Gore and Mr. Buchanan, which disqualified their votes.

The Palm Beach Post’s postelection analysis found that the butterfly ballot ended up costing Mr. Gore far more votes than the 537 by which he lost Florida — and the presidency.

The controversy should have led to sweeping reforms, but it didn’t. A study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law lists 13 ballot problems that show up around the country in election after election. One is creating a layout in which it is unclear what hole voters need to punch — or where they need to place a mark — to cast a vote for a particular candidate. Another is placing more than one contest on the same screen of a computer voting machine, which often leads voters not to vote in one of the races. Making matters worse, the instructions that accompany ballots are often confusing.

Click on the ballot above to see a larger version.
Click on the heading above to read an article about the ballot design problem.

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