NYC Ballot Design Could Cause Confusion

Experts identify potential trouble spots

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Brian Lehrer and Azi Paybarah test out the new ballots (Watch Video/Youtube)

New York City's new paper ballot includes several trouble spots where voters could easily make mistakes, like those made by WNYC's Brian Lehrer and Azi Paybarah when they tried, according to experts in ballot design.

→ VIDEO: Hi, I'm A Paper Ballot! Watch Brian and Azi Struggle With The New Voting System

[+ Expand post for more on ballot trouble spots]

Voters run the risk of filling in the wrong oval for a candidate, misunderstanding which races allow voting for more than one candidate, or missing the write-in area altogether.

That's the assessment of Jessica Friedman Hewitt, an adviser for Design For Democracy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps governments make voting easier. At WNYC's request, she and a circle of designers looked at New York's "Demonstration Ballot" and highlighted areas of concern, which you can see below. They also provided suggestions for how the ballot could be better and offered some tips for voters.

Anyone frustrated by the ballot should look to Albany. Almost every design detail, down to the size of the candidate's names and where lines must go, is dictated by state law, says Steven Richman, general council for the New York City Board of Elections.

"To the extent that we could make it user-friendy, we have," Richman said, adding that the only real option left to the board's discretion was whether voters fill in ovals or squares.

Click on the yellow boxes below to explore the city's "ice cream" demonstration ballot and see the experts' comments.

This is a "Demonstration Ballot" provided by the New York City Board of Elections to help people prepare for the new paper-based voting system. Flavors, foods and sports take the place of candidate names. The titles at the top of the columns (Maple, Pine, etc.) represent political party groupings, which will appear on general election ballots. For primary elections, the offices appear across the top.


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Comments [4]

Ace from New Utrecht

Why were there spaces for write-in candidates on the primary ballots? I wrote in myself for one of the offices on the democratic ballot and was told by the board of elections that there were no write-ins during the primary! Where is my vote?

Dec. 29 2010 11:12 AM
Matthew Rohn

The "text" scan shows a very, very poor optical scan of the ballot instructions. If the goal here is to help people understand the new ballots, I would suggest taking that part down until it is reviewed.

Here's a sampling of the "text" of the instructions as depicted above:

2. To rgotedior ri candidate whose name is printed on the ballot, completely fill rn the voting
ova un ert e name o the candidate.

Sep. 14 2010 10:08 AM
Rima McCoy from NYC

When reporting about the new paper ballot voting system, it is important to mention that there are three components: the paper ballot, the Ballot Marking Device (BMD) and the scanner. In this news piece, the BMD was not mentioned, which is unfortunate because the BMD allows people to mark the paper ballot without the confusion and print size difficulty described in this segment. A voter can insert their ballot into the BMD and using a touch screen interface, see the ballot one race at a time in a larger print format. The BMD also provides a way for people with visual and physical disabilities to mark the ballot independently and privately. For example, a voter who is blind can listen to choices through headphones and push buttons to make selections. A person who cannot use a pen to mark a ballot can push buttons or use a sip and puff device to make selections. This information about the BMD should be included as reporters try to educate people about what to expect when they go to vote this fall.

Rima McCoy
Voting Rights Coordinator
Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY (CIDNY)

Sep. 08 2010 12:37 PM
Howard S. from New York City

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) does not require a paper record of every vote. Congress has repeatedly refused to pass such legislation and HAVA-compliant states such as Georgia, Maryland and New Jersey still use touchscreen voting machines.

HAVA does not require computers (such as optical scanners) to count votes either. That's required by a New York State law called ERMA, passed in 2005.

Nassau County, possibly other counties, and possibly we the voters, are suing the state of NY to have this state law declared unconstitutional, precisely because the law requires computers to count votes.

These plaintiffs (and potential plaintiffs) are not Luddites; they are realists.

Auditing computerized vote counts to find out who really won each contest on the ballot (with high probability) is so complex and onerous that merely suggesting it is considered to be in bad taste by some "election integrity" advocates. Most election officials don't even want to talk about it. And the NYS Legislature? Well, you get the drift. ;)

Instead, we are expected to ration our democracy by attempting to verify the outcomes of some contests, but not others.

Know what else is considered to be in bad taste? Making fun of paper ballots (sorry Brian and Azi)! That's because paper ballots are absolutely essential to verify computerized vote tallies -- even though only 3% of the machines in NY will be checked by hand-counting paper ballots. That's not enough to find out who really won many of our elections, but it's intended to give voters who haven't done the math a warm fuzzy feeling. However, 97% of our new vote-counting computers will not be audited.

So why do our lever voting machines have to be replaced anyway? Not to provide accessibility for disabled voters. We've already done that with electronic ballot marking devices at all poll sites as required by HAVA. Not because the levers don't work (they do!), and not because spare parts aren't available (they are!). Not because the levers are inaccurate -- and certainly not because they allow overvoting (as the new system does)! The lever machines don't allow vote-switching between candidates or political parties either (as the new system can be programmed to do either accidentally or on purpose).

So why replace the lever machines, ration our democracy and spend so much on computers and paper ballots? Follow the money.

Howard Stanislevic
E-Voter Education Project

Sep. 08 2010 11:34 AM

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