Thousands of NY Votes Tossed Over Ballot Confusion

Tens of thousands of votes cast in New York State last year were voided after voters filled out too many ovals on their ballot and then didn't understand the scanning machine's warnings, a new report found.

Statewide, about 20,000 votes for governor were thrown out and 30,000 to 40,000 votes for other candidates were voided, according to the report by Larry Norden and Sundeep Iyer from the Democracy Program at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice. The authors estimate black and Hispanic voters were at least twice as likely to have their votes tossed for "overvoting."

In releasing the report, officials at the Brennan Center said they had come to an agreement with the state elections board to change the machine's warnings.

The center had filed a lawsuit against the state to force the changes on behalf of the New York NAACP.

Misunderstood Message

If you accidentally picked too many candidates for the same race — or didn't completely erase a stray marking — you would see this screen:

Photo: NYU Brennan Center for Justice

Norden, the program's interim director, said most people don't know the phrase "Over Voted Ballot" at the top means too many votes were cast for the same race — invalidating their vote for that race.

And he said the big, green "accept" button at the bottom is misleading.

"Our concern was that a lot of people, not understanding what that message meant, would just go ahead press 'accept' — green seems like a good thing, it seems like a way to get your vote to count. In fact, what ends up happening in those circumstances is that your vote doesn't count," he explained.

Under the agreement, future warnings will be in plain language, such as "You filled in too many ovals" and "These votes will not count," and the buttons will have neutral colors.

Officials for the state elections board did not return calls Monday seeking comment.

Citywide Issue

Norden said that prior to the introduction of paper ballots in 2010, it was virtually impossible to vote for too many candidates because the lever machines didn't allow it.

In New York City, the report found the highest rates of overvoting in neighborhoods with larger non-white and Hispanic populations.

Across the Bronx, nearly 1 of every 100 votes were voided, and the South Bronx saw a pocket of extremely high rates of overvoting, with one in five votes for governor voided. Those six election districts were served by a single polling place — P.S. 65 on East 141st Street. Norden said it's unclear what happened there, because state law doesn't require the city to release the paper ballots.

Data transparency is another issue raised by the report: New York City was unable to provide precinct-level data for more than half of the election districts in Queens and Brooklyn, including many areas with high concentrations of non-white voters.

Ballot Design Concerns

Ballot designers have long said that splitting races into two rows of candidates may be problematic -- because people may mistake the second row as another race.

The "overvoting" data seem to prove that point. In New York City, the race for Senator Kristen Gillibrand's seat appeared on two lines, while the race for Senator Charles Schumer's seat was on one. In the NYC districts for which data were available, voters accidentally picked two candidates 3,350 times for the two-line race and 1,567 times for the one-line race.