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Viewpoint: Dos and Don'ts of Ballot Design
David Kimball (University of Missouri, St. Louis) and Martha Kropf (University of North Carolina, Charlotte)

October 2007


Many recent election reforms in the United States are designed to make voting more user-friendly. While several election reforms have focused heavily on technology, less attention has been devoted to ballot design. Ballot design arguably has a greater impact on the ability of voters to cast ballots without errors. Ballot design appears to be responsible for two of the biggest election controversies in recent memory (the disputed count of presidential votes in Florida in 2000 and the contested result of the 13th Congressional District contest in Sarasota County, Florida in 2006). High levels of residual votes in competitive top-of-the-ballot contests are often a sign of poor ballot design. Residual votes are typically calculated as the difference between the number of people voting and the number of valid votes cast for a particular office. Residual votes can be undervotes (not selecting any choice on the ballot, either accidentally or intentionally) or overvotes (selecting too many choices, usually accidentally). We have conducted extensive research on ballot design, using research on the layout and design of self-administered public opinion surveys as a guide.[1] There are several common errors that tend to cause more residual votes, overvotes and undervotes at the top and bottom of the ballot. Below we describe twelve ballot features that can simplify the voting process. Some of these design features apply to paper ballots, some apply to electronic voting machines, but many apply to both methods.

1. Don't list candidates for the same office in multiple columns or on multiple ballot pages (as in the infamous "butterfly ballot" used in Palm Beach County, Florida in 2000).[2] It is important to list all candidates for the same office in a single column on the same page. 2. "Full-face" electronic ballots tend to cause more difficulty for voters than electronic ballots which scroll through the ballot by presenting one contest on the screen at a time. Presenting all contests at once tends to overwhelm voters, and it is difficult to place nonpartisan contests on the party column layout commonly used in full-face ballots. In particular, voters are more likely to miss ballot initiatives and referenda on full-face ballots.[3] 3. For scrolling Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines, don't place multiple offices on the same screen. This appears to be a major source of voting problems in the disputed contest for the 13th Congressional District in Florida in 2006, where more than 21,000 voters failed to cast a valid vote in a contest decided by fewer than 400 votes.[4] 4. Write-in lines are a common source of overvotes. Some reconfiguration of the write-in line should be considered to prevent voters from selecting a candidate and then writing the same name on the write-in line.[5] In contrast, Nevada includes a "None of These Candidates" voting option that reduces undervotes in federal and statewide contests.[6]

5. To minimize ambiguity about where voters should mark their votes, ballots should avoid locating response options on both sides of candidate names. This is a common problem on optical scan ballots, where two or three columns of offices and candidate names are listed on a single page.[7] 6. Residual votes (and especially overvotes) are less common on fill-in-the-oval ballots than on connect-the-arrow ballots. Voters tend to be familiar with the task of darkening an oval (from standardized tests and many government forms). In contrast, most Americans have never completed forms that required them to connect an arrow.[8] Also, a common problem with connect-the-arrow ballots is that arrows are found on both sides of a candidate's name (see #5), creating confusion about which arrow to complete. 7. Voting instructions should be located in the top left corner of the ballot, just above the first contest. That is where people in Western cultures begin reading a printed page and where respondents will look for instructions on the first task. 8. Voting instructions should be short and simple, written at a low reading level so voters can read and comprehend them quickly. 9. Ballot instructions should warn about the consequences of casting a spoiled ballot and explain how to correct a spoiled ballot (required by the Help America Vote Act of 2002). 10. Ballots should use shading to help voters identify separate voting tasks and differentiate between offices. 11. Ballots should use boldfaced text to help voters differentiate between office titles and response options (candidate names). 12. Ballots should avoid clutter around candidate names (such as a candidate's occupation or hometown or in some cases the lists of electors). In some cases, such clutter is required by state law, but states may want to consider changing such laws.[9] David Kimball is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. Martha Kropf is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

Viewpoint is an occasional feature analyzing various election reform issues.



[1]We thank the National Science Foundation and the Missouri Research Board for funding our ballot studies (NSF Study # SES-0453814).

[2]Robert C. Sinclair, Melvin M. Mark, Sean E. Moore, Carrie A. Lavis, and Alexander S. Soldat, "Psychology: An Electoral Butterfly Effect," Nature, Vol. 408, No. 6814 (14 December 2000), pp. 665-666; Jonathan N. Wand, Kenneth W. Shotts, Jasjeet S. Sekhon, Walter R. Mebane, Jr., Michael C. Herron, and Henry E. Brady, "The Butterfly Did it: The Aberrant Vote for Buchanan in Palm Beach County, Florida," American Political Science Review, Vol. 95, No. 4 (December 2001), pp. 793-810.

[3]Paul S. Herrnson, Richard G. Niemi, Michael J. Hanmer, Benjamin B. Bederson, Frederick G. Conrad, and Michael Traugott, Voting Technology: The Not-So-Simple Act of Casting a Ballot, (Washington, DC: Brookings, 2007); David C. Kimball and Martha Kropf, "Voting Technology, Ballot Measures and Residual Votes, (Unpublished, University of Missouri-St. Louis, 2007).

[4]Laurin Frisina, Michael C. Herron, James Honaker, and Jeffrey B. Lewis, "Ballot Formats, Touchscreens, and Undervotes: A Study of the 2006 Midterm Elections in Florida," (Unpublished, Dartmouth College, 2007).

[5]Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, "Immediate Steps to Avoid Lost Votes in the 2004 Presidential Election: Recommendations for the Election Assistance Commission" (PDF), July 2004.

[6]David C. Kimball, Chris T. Owens, and Katherine M. Keeney, "Unrecorded Votes and Political Representation," in Counting Votes: Lessons from the 2000 Presidential Election in Florida, ed. Robert P. Watson (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004, pp. 135-150.

[7]The following design features are documented more fully in David C. Kimball and Martha Kropf, "Ballot Design and Unrecorded Votes on Paper-Based Ballots," Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 69. No. 4 (2005), pp. 508-529. Also see Douglas W. Jones, "Counting Marksense Ballots: Relating Technology, the Law and Common Sense," (University of Iowa, 2002).

[8]Charles S. Bullock III and M. V. Hood III, "One Person--No Vote; One Vote; Two Votes: Voting Methods, Ballot Types, and Undervote Frequency in the 2000 Presidential Election," Social Science Quarterly, Vol. 83, No. 4 (March 2002), pp. 981-993; Kimball and Kropf 2005.

[9]Richard G. Niemi and Paul S. Herrnson, "Beyond the Butterfly: The Complexity of U.S. Ballots," Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 1, No. 2 (June 2003), pp. 317-326.

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