Badly designed ballots could invalidate thousands of votes, study warns

There’s more evidence today that the haphazard and often creaky machinery of our elections is likely to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Americans this November.

A report by the Brennan Center for Justice says defects in ballot design, unclear voter instructions and confusing or erroneous displays in voting machines led up to 400,000 absentee or provisional ballot voters in 2008 and ’10 to make technical mistakes in completing voting forms or preparing and returning the ballot envelopes. The mistakes led officials to rule the votes invalid, the study added.

Titled Better Design, Better Elections, the report argues that poor ballot design increases every voter’s risk of casting a ballot that will be lost or misrecorded; the risk is greatest for low-income and elderly voters, who are more likely to misread or misunderstand ballot instructions, it added.

Among the breakdowns cited in the report:

  • In East St. Louis, IL in 2008, 1 in 10 voters skipped the U.S. Senate contest by mistake because the header identifying the race on their ballots was inadequate. East St. Louis had the state’s highest rate of lost ballots.
  • In 2010 Ohio gubernatorial race, several counties reported unusually high numbers of voters selecting more than one candidate. The report says printed instructions on the ballot told voters to “select the set of joint candidates of your choice,” apparently prompting some voters to vote for more than one candidate.
  • In the 2008 Minnesota Senate race, ultimately decided by just 312 votes, nearly 4,000 absentee votes were tossed out because voters failed to sign the state-supplied envelopes used to mail in their ballots.


The Brennan Center report follows last week’s release by Common Cause, the Verified Voting Foundation and the Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic of a 50-state study on voting technologies. That study, Counting Votes 2012:  A State-by-State Look at Voting Technology Preparedness, documented repeated voting system failures stemming from machines that won’t start, memory cards that can’t be read, mis-tallied votes, lost votes and more.


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