While Indiana had simply made an innocent mistake in designing their ballot, several things can be done -- accidentally or intentionally -- in designing ballots to actually influence the outcome of elections, disenfranchise certain groups of voters or both.
In 2000, the now-infamous "Butterfly Ballot" (Try It) used in Palm Beach County, Florida, is claimed by many to have cost Al Gore the presidential election to George W. Bush. A CNN analysis showed that Gore lost 6,607 votes when voters using the "Butterfly Ballot" punched more than one presidential candidate. The so called "over vote" ballots were thrown out as invalid ballots.
How to Make a Bad Ballot
In their paper "Better Ballots (.pdf)," the Brennan Center for Justice details 13 different ballot design practices likely to result in confused voters and miscast or discarded ballots.
- Split candidates for the same office on different pages or columns (Like the "Butterfly Ballot").
- Place different contests on the same screen of touch-screen voting machines.
- Place response options or instructions on both sides of candidate names.
- Use "Complete the Arrow" instead of "Fill the Oval" ballot marking options.
- Leave disqualified or withdrawn candidates on the ballot.
- Use different candidate and contest styles throughout the ballot.
- Do not use shading to help voters differentiate between contests, candidates and other voting tasks.
- Do not even use bold text to help voters differentiate between contests, candidates and other voting tasks.
- Make voting instructions long and complicated, using lots of legal or election jargon.
- Place voting instructions far from their related actions.
- Do not tell voters how to correct mistakes on paper ballots.
- Do not warn voters of under voting on touch-screen voting machines. (An under vote happens when a voter fails to select any candidate for a given contest. On touch-screen voting machines, under votes often happen accidentally. Voters should be instructed to re-check their ballots carefully before declaring them complete.)
- Best of all: Publish sample ballots that are different from the actual ballots.
Who Bad Ballots Hurt the Most
Elderly, low-income and new voters suffer the most from bad ballot design, according to Michael Waldman, Brennan Center Executive Director.
"Elderly citizens, especially, too often have their goal of casting a vote thwarted by jumbled design, and sheer incomprehensibility. This is one election problem with no villains. We can fix ballot design issues over the summer, so that in November (2008) every vote cast is a vote that will be accurately counted," said Waldman in a press release. "Design flaws resulted in hundreds of thousands of lost votes in recent elections."
Reporting Bad Ballots and Other Voter Rights Issues
Ballot design aside, if you are ever confused when voting, STOP. Don't mark the ballot, don't touch the screen, don't pull any levers. Get a poll worker to help you. If the poll worker cannot help you, ask to see an election judge or election observer. They are the people assigned to help you on election day.
If you are confused by the layout of the ballot, report the problem to the precinct election officials immediately. They may be able to issue additional instructions for voters on the spot. Should you believe the ballot problem, or any other election-related problem, made it difficult or impossible for you to cast your ballot as you wished, you should report the details to the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. There are no special forms to use or procedures to follow--just call them toll-free at (800) 253-3931, or contact them by mail at:
Chief, Voting Section
Civil Rights Division Room 7254 - NWB
Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, DC 20530