Today’s election design challenge is brought to you by the race for the U.S. Senate in California. With Barbara Boxer retiring, the open seat has attracted 34 candidates according to the list certified by the Secretary of State on April 1st. And that has county election officials in a quandary.
You see, ballot layouts are limited by the size of the ballot paper, laws dictating the order of the contests on the ballot and information that must be on the ballot, and the voting system technology, even before we get to a readable text size.
34 candidates for the Senate is a perfect storm of problems for ballot design:
And here’s the critical usability issue: splitting a contest into two columns is an invitation to overvote (voting for more candidates than allowed). That’s because voters are much more likely to choose one candidate from each column, and two choices are too many.
This is not just a theoretical concern. In an analysis of ballot design problems in real elections, the 2008 Brennan Center report, Better Ballots, said:
Just two years after the Palm Beach County ballot design debacle… “Kewaunee County, Wisconsin used a ballot that listed candidates for Governor in two different columns. The residual vote rate for the Governor’s race in Kewaunee County was nearly eleven times the rate in the rest of the state.” (page 22)
California election officials have spent the last week scrambling to find a design solution that will work for voters, fit within the law, and work with their election systems. There are many different voting systems in California, with different technical capabilities, so the ballot layout will also have variations.
Putting the Senate on the front of the ballot means that the candidates are arranged in two columns, so our first approach was to try to use layout and instructional messages to make sure voters saw this unusual layout and did not vote for one candidate in each column. Voting for two candidates would be an overvote error, and would mean their vote did not count.
On Friday, April 1, the Center’s Nancy Frishberg and colleague Jayne Schurick joined Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin to test three variations in the layout and messages on the first page of the ballot. We told voters that we had changed the instructions and wanted to make sure the new ones were clear. “Go ahead and show us how you’d vote this ballot.”
The results suggested that the two-column layout could be a disaster.
None of the two-column designs we tested worked: Over a third of the 29 people who tried the ballots overvoted by choosing a candidate in both of the columns.
The idea that a third of the voters might make a mistake that would cause their vote to be thrown out was enough to send us back to the drawing board.
In Santa Cruz, Pellerin worked with their ballot designer on two design solutions to move the contest for Senate to the back of the ballot, where there is (just) enough room to fit all the candidates in one column. In the end, they decided to put only the President (and party committees) on the front of the ballot, and fit everything else on the back. This layout fits in Santa Cruz, but might not work in counties with more contests and local ballot measures, or who have bilingual ballots.
The challenge with this design is that voters who are not registered with a political party will see a blank ballot. Will they turn it over to find all of the contests? A message in the empty space on the first page directs voters to turn the ballot over to begin (or continue) voting.
Around the state, other counties have also tried different designs, working within the technical limits of their voting systems, including:
Running a test like the one we did in Santa Cruz can be as easy as setting up a table in the main lobby of the county office building, where people are coming to do everyday business like paying taxes, getting building permits, or applying for a passport.
In just a few hours, we were able to watch 29 people including at least 3 who had never voted in a Presidential primary. We told them that we were checking the instructions on the ballot, and asked them to vote in any way they wanted.
If they voted in both columns of the Senate contest, we asked ““How many candidates for US Senate are there?” This often made them look at the ballot again to read the instructions. Unfortunately, when they realized they made a mistake, most tried to correct their double voting by crossing out one of their choices. This might have been an effect of the test context, but it also meant that they didn’t notice the instruction at the top of the page: “If you make a mistake, ask a poll worker for another ballot.”
We tried reduce concerns about whether these ballots might end up getting counted by using red or green pens (those colors can’t be read by the ballot tabulators), and printing the sample ballots on regular copy paper instead of the card stock for a real ballot
There are a lot of lessons to learn, but the most important from our perspective is that a little usability testing goes a long way. We’ve been excited to hear that other counties are also running usability tests with their own ballot layouts and their own voters.
Even the simplest of tests, put together in just a few days was enough to tell us that one possible ballot layout would likely be a problem. It pushed everyone to work together to find a better solution – one that won’t risk losing votes.
This is still a work in progress with deadlines for sending ballots to the printer looming. We’ll be back to post some of the different solutions as soon as sample ballots are available.
The illustrations from 2016 are not final ballots, but different layouts that counties tried as they worked to solve the problem and ensure that votes would be counted. Counties and their ballot designers went through many variations, looking for a solution that worked for voters and was technically correct for the tabulators to scan.
Start with Field Guide Vol. 3 Testing ballots for usability.
Selecting primary election ballots in California has examples of how this process is explained to voters.
Better Ballots is an analysis of design errors that affected how voters marked their ballots.
Our California 2016 Primary voter guide collection has examples of the ballots from all 58 counties.