How to beat bad ballot design and make sure your vote counts

Missed a race? Forgot to sign the envelope? Picked too many candidates?

You may be the victim of bad ballot design — and it could mean your vote won’t count.

“Every year we seem to have one or two big, horrible problems that make the news,” said Whitney Quesenbery, executive director of the Center for Civic Design, the go-to organization for creating voter-friendly election materials. But even if your county ends up being that county, you don’t have to let the ballot trip you up.

Now that you’ve figured out where, when and how to vote, watch out for these common pitfalls as you fill out your ballot.

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(For The Washington Post)

Intimidating envelopes

The envelope is too important to be an afterthought if you are one of the millions of Americans who will be voting absentee for the first time.

More than 430,000 absentee ballots were thrown out during the 2018 election, largely because of voter mistakes. And the most common place for a ballot-disqualifying mistake is the envelope.

[Most U.S. voters are eligible to cast mail ballots this fall]

X doesn’t always mark the spot — so be sure to sign

If you are voting absentee, you will have to sign at least one item in your ballot packet, usually the outside of the envelope. (Disabled voters who can’t sign will be asked for some other mark or identification method.) Other than missing the deadline, the top reason ballots are thrown out is a signature problem, according to the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission.

A good design will make the signature spot very obvious. The 2008 Minnesota absentee ballot envelope did not.

That year’s U.S. Senate contest was won by a margin of just 312 votes, but more than 3,900 absentee ballots weren’t counted because the envelopes weren’t signed, according to a guide put out by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice.

The ballot had clear boxes for the voter’s printed name and address, but the signature area could be mistaken for blank space before the next section.

After a redesign for 2010 that included a large X — the universal cue for “sign here” — and shading that made the signature box the most prominent item, the rate of unsigned ballots fell by half.

After nearly 4,000 Minnesota voters didn't sign their 2008 absentee ballot envelopes (left), Minnesota made the signature line more prominent in 2010 (right), and the rate of unsigned envelopes dropped by half.
After nearly 4,000 Minnesota voters didn't sign their 2008 absentee ballot envelopes (left), Minnesota made the signature line more prominent in 2010 (right), and the rate of unsigned envelopes dropped by half. (Brennan Center for Justice)

Also critical: In 31 states, your signature has to match the one the state has on file, according to data as of Tuesday from the National Vote at Home Institute. That is probably the signature on your driver’s license or state-issued ID, so take a peek at it before you sign.

Half of states have a “cure” process that will alert absentee voters to envelope problems such as a missing signature and allow them to fix the problem. Of course that means half do not.

[How to prevent your mail ballot from being rejected]

Two envelopes? Don’t let your ballot go commando.

Absentee ballots in 11 states are designed to fit into a second envelope or sleeve to ensure privacy, according to the National Vote at Home Institute. Most states accept ballots “naked” — without that inner covering — but two will not: Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

  • North Carolin ballot design
    Behind the scenes

    How a design researcher in North Carolina turned a confusing envelope into a user-friendly model for other states.

Kentucky will alert you and let you fix the problem, but in Pennsylvania, you’re out of luck. Recently, the state Supreme Court ruled that naked ballots will be thrown out, even if they are otherwise filled out correctly.

Four other states include second envelopes that require a voter’s signature for the ballot to be counted.

Finally, before you put your ballot in the mail, look to see if it needs a stamp — voters in 21 states won’t receive postage-paid envelopes — and seal the envelope(s), because a few states will toss ballots that arrive in unsealed envelopes.

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Wonky instructions

You know that you should read an entire recipe before you begin to cook? Same goes for voting materials. Clarity of language is not always the top priority.

State and local laws may require specific wording and design elements. Printing companies and machine manufacturers dictate paper size and the amount of text that fits on a screen. Money constraints might prompt an official to try to cram more onto a page.

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“All of those come first,” said Larry Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, “and then the design.”

As you wade through the instructions, don’t miss these things:

Ovals? Squares? Be bold and watch where you’re coloring.

Paper ballots usually require voters to fill in shapes next to their choice of candidate, but sometimes the shapes are counterintuitive.

People tend to fill in ovals completely, for instance, but only put check marks in squares — and a check mark may not register on a scanner.

Double-check that you match the oval to the candidate.

“I’ve seen ballots where they put the oval to the left of the name,” said Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute. “Most people are right-handed, so you’re covering the name while you’re filling in the circle.”

And check to see if the color of ink is specified.

DON’T LOOK AWAY from all-caps phrases

Studies show people are less likely to read text that is loud red or in all-capital letters than they are to read text written in black type with capital-and-lowercase letters, McReynolds said.

Unfortunately, many designers of elections materials still put important instructions in all-caps.

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Follow your arrows (and doodads and dingbats)

Many ballots contain icons to help voters along.

Arrows, for instance, were key to understanding the infamous “butterfly” ballots in Palm Beach County, Fla., in the 2000 presidential race.

In those oddly constructed ballots, candidates’ names were spread across two facing pages — a major design no-no — with a row of punch circles down the center. Al Gore (D) was listed second in the left column under George W. Bush (R).

So voters needed to punch the second circle to vote for Gore, right? Nope. An arrow pointed from Gore’s name to the third circle from the top, not the second.

The "butterfly" ballot style, used most notably in Palm Beach County, Fla., in 2000, has become synonymous with bad ballot design.
The "butterfly" ballot style, used most notably in Palm Beach County, Fla., in 2000, has become synonymous with bad ballot design. (Steve Krug)

Missing that arrow is how, according to a study published in the American Political Science Review, more than 2,000 Gore voters probably accidentally voted for a third-party candidate, who was listed first on the right-hand page and whose circle was second from the top. That number alone was higher than Bush’s winning margin in the state.

Another nearly 29,000 Palm Beach ballots were not counted because voters punched no circles or punched too many circles.

The takeaway? Make sure you understand the instructions, and if you don’t, check the county’s website, call its elections office, or if you’re voting in person, ask a poll worker.

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Hidden races

You can choose not to vote in a race, but you don’t want to miss one because you didn’t see it.

A race left blank on an otherwise completed ballot is called an “undervote,” and a high number of undervotes in one jurisdiction usually indicates a problem with the ballot’s design.

What’s in that corner? A Senate contest.

In 2018, a Senate seat was the highest federal office on the Florida ballot, and the contentious contest between incumbent Bill Nelson (D) and Rick Scott (R) had generated huge interest. But in Broward County, almost 25,000 fewer people voted in that race than in the governor’s race.

Nearly 25,000 Broward County voters didn't mark a choice in Florida's contentious 2018 Senate race, possibly because the contest was tucked under the instructions in the bottom left corner.
Nearly 25,000 Broward County voters didn't mark a choice in Florida's contentious 2018 Senate race, possibly because the contest was tucked under the instructions in the bottom left corner. (Oxide Design Co.)

Analysts would later conclude that many of those voters didn’t see the Senate race, because it was tucked at the bottom of the far-left column of the 22-inch-long ballot beneath the Creole version of the instructions.

“It was just hidden in plain sight,” Quesenbery said.

Scott defeated Nelson by less than half the number of Broward undervotes.

Screen-sharing is bad for voting

Touch-screens at ATMs and grocery stores ask one question per screen, and experts say that’s how voting machines should work as well.

Most of the ballot screens in Sarasota County, Fla., contained one race each in the 2006 election, but there was an exception: A two-candidate congressional race was placed on the same screen above a multi-candidate gubernatorial race.

The second race took up much more space and had a green-shaded label above it that drew your eye. More than 14,000 ballots had no vote in that top race, and the outcome was decided by 369 votes.

See the congressional race at the top of this screen? Many Sarasota County voters in 2006 apparently didn't.
See the congressional race at the top of this screen? Many Sarasota County voters in 2006 apparently didn't. (Steve Nesius/AP)

Notice a lot of Florida in this piece? Norden said Florida comes up so often in discussions of bad ballots not because its ballots are worse than other states but because so many of its elections are really close. He said that if a New York ballot had the same problem as the Broward ballot in 2018, no one would’ve noticed, because it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of a Senate race.

That means any swing state could play the Florida role this year.

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Always watch your ballot’s back

Voters often miss races by not turning ballots over to see if anything is on the other side.

Quesenbery said that in a 2007 usability test of ballots in Florida, even experienced poll workers neglected to turn the ballots over and vote in the races that were printed on the back. Horrified, they solved their own problem with a highly effective, low-tech solution: They handed voters the ballots back to front to show that there were races on both sides.

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Invitations to overvoting

Ballot design is getting better as jurisdictions replace outdated systems and incorporate best practices into new technology. The butterfly ballot, for instance, is almost entirely extinct.

But races that include many candidates remain a vexing challenge for ballot designers — and voters need to know when to pick just one.

Columns (or pages) that run over

“Probably the biggest cause of lost votes is where a contest is put over two columns or two pages,” Norden said.

Most voters are conditioned to seeing all candidates for a contest in one vertical list, so when candidates are spread over multiple columns — or worse, pages — some voters incorrectly choose a candidate from each.

That is called an “overvote,” and it could be a big problem next month on paper ballots in Gwinnett County, Ga., Norden said, because the county’s ballot has spread the 20 candidates in the special Senate contest over two columns.

Experts say voters are more likely to choose too many candidates when names in a race are spread over two columns, as in this 2020 sample ballot from Gwinnett County, Ga.
Experts say voters are more likely to choose too many candidates when names in a race are spread over two columns, as in this 2020 sample ballot from Gwinnett County, Ga. (Oxide Design Co.)

Fortunately, a federal law enacted after the 2000 election requires that voting machines and ballot scanners reject ballots with overvotes and let voters fix them. (Some machines will alert voters to undervotes as well.) That takes extra time at polling places, but at least the votes will count.

Absentee voters, on the other hand, have to make sure they get it right the first time.

A field split over rows in a grid

In the annals of bad ballot design, one state — and one city — stands above them all.

“Horrible,” said Norden.

“The ugliest ballot I’ve ever seen,” McReynolds said.

Congrats, New York — you’re the worst, thanks to outdated laws that make user-friendly ballots nearly impossible.

“They have designed their ballot so it looks like the old lever machine,” Quesenbery said. Those machines lined up candidates by parties in grids so that it was easy to vote a straight ticket. “You’ve switched from a mechanical device to a paper device. Why would you keep that same layout? But they did. And they have. And I’m sad. And nothing anybody has been able to say has gotten them to change.”

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The races are laid out in grids, often with fields in horizontal rows. Large fields may be split over more than one row, so again, some voters think they needed to choose one candidate per row. Instructions in up to five languages crowd the ballots and the envelopes. A candidate’s name may be listed under two or three different parties in the same row thanks to an odd process that allows candidates to run under the rubrics of more than one party.

New York ballots are no longer as awful as this 2010 sample ballot from Kings County, but experts say the state-mandated format remains confusing.
New York ballots are no longer as awful as this 2010 sample ballot from Kings County, but experts say the state-mandated format remains confusing. (Brennan Center for Justice)

The flaws were obvious in 2010, when both Senate races were on the ballot. More than twice as many overvotes occurred in a contest that was split over two rows than in the other, which had fewer candidates and was contained in a single row.

The city’s ballots now contain less clutter, but the grid remains.

[Minuscule number of potentially fraudulent ballots in states with universal mail voting undercuts Trump claims about election risks]

In general, Norden doesn’t think laws that codify bad design are a nefarious ploy.

“Sometimes there’s political advantage in certain rules,” he said, “but mostly it’s the people who were elected under the system of laws that we have are reluctant to change them, because they know how they got elected.”

Quesenbery said that election officials want to help voters vote easily — and they each pray for wide margins so that a ballot they designed doesn’t become the next cautionary tale.

“I think that some states are complicated, and some envelopes are small, and some people are better designers than others, but no one is actively trying to trick someone,” she said. Bad design sometimes just happens.

Her advice to voters?

“Take your time. Check everything carefully. And go vote.”

About this story

Illustrations by Rose Wong for The Washington Post. Animation by Kolin Pope.

Bonnie Berkowitz is a reporter in the Graphics department at The Washington Post who often focuses on Health & Science topics.