Brennan Center: Better Ballots
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By Lawrence Norden, David Kimball, Whitney Quesenbery, and Margaret Chen
July 21, 2008
Download PDF of study
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
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
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.
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