The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a badly designed ballot might have swayed the election in Florida

In Broward County, thousands of ballots didn’t include a vote for senator. That may have been because of how the ballot looked.

Election workers sort ballots on Nov. 11 at the Broward Supervisor of Elections office in Lauderhill, Fla. The Florida recount began Sunday morning in Broward County. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/AP)

In the run-up to an election, it’s all about getting access to the ballot. Who will turn out and how many? Will there be voter suppression? How will weather affect turnout? We even concern ourselves with how astronauts will access their ballots from space.

There’s less discussion about the ballots themselves. After all, how hard can it be to mark your choice and slide the ballot into a scanner?

Well, thousands of New York voters now know. As do voters in Broward County, Fla., who missed voting for the U.S. Senate.

New York state law requires a “full face” ballot, which officials have interpreted to mean that all the candidates for the office have to be on the same page, leading to the perforations connecting two pages into one. An unknown number of voters missed the middle pages of the four-page ballot, and voters who didn’t know (and weren’t told) to separate the two parts of their ballot caused machines to jam; subsequently, some voters waited hours to cast their votes.

After spending more than 15 years studying ballot design, we are well aware that the layout, visual design and navigation of ballots matters and has affected the outcomes of elections, as it might have in Florida.

In Broward County, according to MCI Maps, about 3.7 percent (30,896) of voters skipped voting for U.S. senator — as much as 2.5 percent more than in most other counties, and a lot more than neighboring counties. In fact, more people in Broward County voted for the commissioner of agriculture and county CFO than for their U.S. senator. As of Sunday, the two Senate candidates are separated by 12,562 votes statewide; there were 24,992 fewer votes cast for senator than for governor in Broward.

The Broward County ballot almost certainly played a role. Let’s take a look:

It’s a common design: vertical page layout with three columns. The instructions start at the top of the left hand column. And there, tucked into the bottom left corner under the instructions and perhaps easily missed, are the candidates for senator and representative in Congress.

In observing hundreds of people mark ballots in our research, we know that voters often skip reading instructions. This year’s long wait times to get a ballot surely made many people rush to mark their votes even faster than usual; the design of this ballot did not help voters see where the instructions ended and the contests started. It’s likely that many voters simply did not see the box to mark for senator.

We already know best design practices for ballots. In addition to leaving a blank space below the instructions and putting the first contest at the top of the next column, ballots should be kept to as few pages as possible. This not only makes financial sense, but voters are less likely to accidentally skip part of the ballot, and it helps lines move faster at polling precincts. Broward County’s ballot followed none of these guidelines. The full ballot in some districts was three cards printed on both sides with ample space on each page.

We know, though, that elections take place under financial, technical and legal constraints. The election management software lays out the ballot used in a voting system, and it doesn’t always follow best design practices, perhaps suggesting putting the Senate and House contests under the instructions for some good technical reason that doesn’t factor into human behavior.

The laws that govern elections also present problems. Many states codify ballot design standards in their election codes, with specifications for the layout, grid, typeface and size, and the wording of the instructions.

Florida has rules for ballot layout required under its election law. In the law’s sample layout, the instructions are short and take up only a small part of the left column (less than two inches). But in Broward County, the instructions are longer and are repeated in three languages, filling most of the column. (The guidance was fine for short, single-language ballots but creates a design problem in a multi-language ballot.)

Lawmakers have to play their part by making sure laws keep up with changes in voting systems. When New York moved from lever machines to paper ballots, there was virtually no attention paid to what the legislation required related to ballot design. This resulted in the wrong voting instructions, and a messy, confusing paper ballot. The New York Assembly has passed the Voter Friendly Act more than once (as recently as April 2018), but it has never made it to a governor’s desk. It included provisions for early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, voter registration modernization — and ballot design: modern typography, clearer layout, clearer marking targets.

When it’s not possible to follow best practices, whether because voting laws aren’t serving the system of voting or because it’s not technically possible to do so, the next best thing is voter education. Sample ballots that look exactly like the ballots voters will use at the polling place should be widely available. On-site education is also critical. Poll workers in New York, for example, could have instructed voters to unfold the ballot, vote both sides, and tear the cards apart before putting them into the scanner.

Americans, including New Yorkers and Floridians, want their votes to count. Let’s help them do that with well-designed ballots that don’t create confusion, or worse — change the results of an election.


An earlier version of this post misstated that there were fewer votes cast for governor than for senator in Broward County. The reverse is true.