Confusing ballot designs still plague elections

By: AP
By: AP

The solution should have been a no-brainer, voting experts say. After all, it was a badly designed ballot that enflamed the 2000 election meltdown and introduced the vagaries of chads to the political lexicon — pregnant, hanging and otherwise.

So it would seem that redesigning ballots to make them simpler should have been a high priority. But that hasn't been the case, voting experts say.

Eight years after the fiasco in Florida's Palm Beach County, confusing ballots continue to stymie voters and plague elections in this primary season.

"The sad fact is, we still have not systematically addressed the need for good ballot design standards," said Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's law school. "We've spent billions of dollars on overhauling election administration in this country, but we're still seeing the same ballot design mistakes in almost every federal election."

There are no federal laws concerning ballot design. Some states have guidelines, others don't. Largely, ballots are designed by local election officials, who number more than 5,500. On Election Day, that means there will be the same number of ballots across the country, all with different designs.

This year's hectic primary season has already met with confusion and controversy. In Pennsylvania's April 22 contest, some folks at the polls complained a ballot section containing delegate choices was hard to read and easily overlooked.

In Ohio's problem-prone Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, several March 4 primary voters became upset when poll workers insisted they remove a perforated ballot stub, used as an accounting device, on which was clearly printed "Do not remove." Voters feared their ballot wouldn't be counted.

County elections director Jane Platten held a news conference that day, promising voters — who turned out in record numbers for a Democratic nominating race between New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama — that every ballot would be counted, with or without a stub.

One of the worst primary snafus occurred in Los Angeles County, the nation's largest voting jurisdiction. On Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, an avalanche of voters inundated polling places. Many complained about a ballot eccentricity that required independent voters to fill in two ovals — one for a candidate and one for the party in which they were voting.

Days later, a stormy public hearing followed, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors demanded an investigation. Initially, more than 60,000 ballots were considered void. Acting county registrar Dean Logan then led a recount of those cards and eventually 48,525 Democratic votes were added to the county total, giving 51 percent to Clinton and 42 percent to Obama. The election's outcome was unchanged, and opponents appeared calmed by the recount.

Platten and Logan said the confusing aspects of their county ballots will be dropped in time for November's general election. Los Angeles voters go to the polls again on June 3 in a primary election for nonpresidential candidates. The double ovals have been eliminated in favor of preprinted cards for each party, Logan said.

Platten said she will get rid of the troublesome tab when she and her staff begin redesigning Cuyahoga County's ballot this summer, in time for November.

In 2002, Congress passed a mammoth reform package known as the Help America Vote Act, designed to prevent a repeat of the 2000 election debacle. Part of that disaster was caused by Palm Beach County's "butterfly ballot," an open-faced punch card in which candidate names ran over two columns, with punch holes running side-by-side down the middle. Voters complained they were confused by the layout and didn't realize until afterward that they had punched the wrong hole.

A recount of those ballots — and others across Florida — created more disarray when auditors discovered some holes hadn't been pressed hard enough, leaving bits of the ballot — dubbed chads — hanging, swinging or pregnant — not perforated all the way. As a result, many of the ballots were not counted.

The federal voting act made $3.9 billion available to election officials to overhaul their voting systems. Much of that money went to purchasing new systems, including electronic touch-screen technology touted by manufacturers as the answer to voting ills.

"There was a belief that with the machines, technology was going to solve the problem of voter confusion." said Norden, who has assembled a task force to provide ballot design help to local officials.

"You can have the greatest machines in the world," Norden said, but if you create a design that is confusing, you're going to end up with voter errors."

Touch-screen machines have proved to contain ballot design problems as well. In 2006 in Sarasota, Fla., some 18,000 voters failed to mark a congressional race. The electronic layout, which posted the race at the top of a ballot page without the same type of heading given to other contests, has been blamed by voting advocates as the cause of those under-votes.

David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is part of the Brennan Center task force. Electronic voting machines, like ATMs, should have only one choice per screen, he said. "Putting everything on one screen is very problematic. Putting everything at once in front of the voter overwhelms them. And that can be an invitation to cut the voting short."

Under the federal voting law, mandates also were established to help revamp election systems, including producing ballot design guidelines. Those directives are carried out by the federal Election Assistance Commission.

The commission, which has been criticized by some voting advocates for being slow to act, produced overall guidelines last November, when it posted online a 266-page report titled "Effective Designs for the Administration of Federal Elections."

In December, the commission mailed CDs of the report, with downloadable ballot graphics, to election officials nationwide.

Apparently, not everyone got the report.

"I certainly haven't seen it," said Cuyahoga County elections director Platten. "Now that I know it's there, I will get on the Web and check it out."


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