Thousands of NY Votes Tossed Over Ballot Confusion

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

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.


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Comments [9]

pertinax from Syosset

Actually, if you voted more than once for a candidate for a certain office, your vote was only voided to the extent that the higher line party got credit for the vote, WHICH COUNTED. If you voted for different candidates, sorry (then your vote was voided for that specific race).

P.S. I hate the new scanners too. We did have great simple machines in the past, and should have persuaded the rest of the Union to use our voting method instead of going over to theirs. Well, that's a pipe dream, I guess.

Dec. 06 2011 07:59 PM
Molly from Valley Stream, New York

There is no privacy with these new machines. As I went to "feed" my ballot to the computer, an elderly poll worker stepped up suddenly and pulled it out of my hand. As I watched in horror, he raised his arm and waved my ballot high in the air for all to see. "This one was printed off-kilter," he yelled. "Do you think it will go through?"

I was dumbfounded. Not only did the entire room see my vote, but I actually had no way of knowing if my ballot (which he did then let me "submit") was actually counted correctly.

These new machines are nothing but rickety junk. Bring back the old machines!

Dec. 06 2011 05:35 PM
Ace from New Utrecht

The print is too small and too crowded, impossible to read.

The poll workers standing by the machine's violate the voter's right to privacy.

What was wrong with the old machines anyway?

Dec. 06 2011 01:02 PM
Shell from NYC

I bet this one election had more votes not properly counted than all the "voter fraud" in the past Presidential election. Yet everyone is hysterical about forcing people to get inconvenient and expensive IDs in order exercise their constitutional right to vote.

Dec. 06 2011 12:46 PM

Phillip: You're right that the entire ballot is not tossed out. Many votes are cast on each ballot.

In the explanation about how it happens, we say that choosing too many candidates "invalidat[es] their vote for that race" and we talk throughout about voided votes for particular races -- governor, senator, etc.

Dec. 06 2011 12:20 PM
Brad from Brooklyn

How is it my Grandma can check out with a robot at Walgreen's but we can't invent a simple multiple choice machine to vote on? Is it really more complicated than an ICBM?

Dec. 06 2011 11:43 AM
playaspec from Brooklyn

Philip Ehrlich from Bronx said:
>This should be happening at all polling places, it happens at the one where I work.

You are absolutely *WRONG* that this should be happening at all. As a computer professional, I can assure you that it is trivial for the computer to prevent over voting *without* throwing out *any* votes.

The software should be corrected to show the line with multiple votes and give the voter a chance to remove the excessive vote *before* being allowed to proceed.

The people behind running these machines have failed their mission by allowing this to happen at all.

Dec. 06 2011 11:39 AM
nancy from manhattan

Yes, there IS a commuter tax. The MCTMT (Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Mobility Tax) which is paid by people like me who work at home and don't commute at all. I travel from my bedroom to my studio within the walls of my apartment and yet I have been charged this new mis-named at the least tax. Where is the commute, the transportation or the mobility in what I am being taxed on???

Dec. 06 2011 10:29 AM
Philip Ehrlich from Bronx

Your story was incomplete and therefore misleading. Only the one line that is over-voted is not counted under these circumstances. All the other lines are counted. You made it sound like the entire ballot is not counted. Also, there is a poll worker at each scanner to help the voter who would explain what went wrong and advise the voter to start over with a new ballot. This should be happening at all polling places, it happens at the one where I work.

Dec. 06 2011 08:58 AM

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