Ballot Tells Voters to Fill Wrong Oval

Lanugage Dictated by State Law

Thursday, October 21, 2010

City elections officials will reinforce the proper way to fill out ballots on election day after the revelation that printed ballot instructions tell voters to fill in the wrong ovals.

Instructions on a sample ballot direct voters to fill the "oval above" a candidate's name -- but the proper oval is  below each candidate's name. Following those instructions, someone trying to vote for Carl Paladino for Governor on the Taxpayers Party line would actually cast a vote for Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins.

The Brennan Center for Justice found the error after obtaining a sample ballot from the city Board of Elections. The center wrote a letter requesting the ballot be fixed before the election.

The incorrect instructions read:

"To vote for a candidate whose name is printed on this ballot, fill in the oval above or next to the name of the candidate."

UPDATE:  The Brennan Center also found that the incorrect wording of the instructions is actually mandated by state law. We've highlighted that section of the law here. City election officials have previously said that almost every aspect of the ballot design is dicated by state law, preventing changes that would make ballots easier to use.

"For most voters, they'll be able to figure out who to vote for," said Brennan Center Senior Counsel Larry Norden. Unless, he said, they read the instructions.

On the sample ballot, each candidate and his or her oval are bounded by a box, and in most cases the proper oval is clearly below the candidate's name. But ballot designers have expressed concern that sometimes the nearest oval is actually just above the candidate's name -- potentially causing confusion even without the incorrect instructions.

The Board of Elections issued a statement on Thursday in response to questions about the erroneous ballot instructions. "On November 2, New York City voters will vote using a paper ballot and optical scanner. To vote for a candidate whose name appears on the paper ballot, voters need to fill in the oval that appears within the voting square for that candidate." 

"To ensure that all voters are comfortable and confident using the new voting system, the Board of Elections in the City of New York is placing in every privacy booth at all poll sites, instructions that inform voters that they need to fill in the oval below the candidate name they wish to vote for. The Board is also reinforcing instructions on how to correctly fill out the paper ballot by highlighting this information in upcoming newspaper advertisements and by producing a detailed instructional voter palm card which includes a photo of a correctly marked oval.  This palm card will be distributed at every poll site on Election Day and will also be available shortly on the Board’s website," the statement concluded.

To look at the sample ballot yourself, scroll down and click on the yellow boxes below for detail. The mistaken instructions are on the second page.

Sample ballot scan courtesy of the Brennan Center for Justice, which obtained the document from the New York City Board of Elections.


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Comments [15]


Wow. These ballot papers are really really badly designed!

I come from Australia. We have great design for our ballot papers... very clear.

A separate ballot paper for each race, that is well designed.

Each paper is small - maybe one-third of letter size.

Maybe the US electoral commission should look overseas for some best-practice ballot design ideas??

Nov. 05 2010 04:40 AM
K2K from Bronx

Thanks for posting the sample ballot. Good thing the directions are on side 2!

I am really disappointed that we can not split our vote for Governor and LT. Governor.

Actually, I am really disappointed that the candidates for LT. Governor are not our candidates for Governor, but I guess we can always assume another resignation is inevitable...what with a new corruption scandal every two weeks on average...

Oct. 21 2010 09:42 PM
RMG1 from Central New Jersey

This is an example of amateurs doing a professional's job -- this ballot layout was probably slapped together by a print shop apprentice who might have used Microsoft Word instead of a sophisticated page layout program like InDesign or Quark. The many people who "proofed" this document dodn't know a thing about infographics or graphics period -- give this same material to an experienced graphic designer and see what the resulting layout would look like (not a bad idea -- have a competition among graphic design schools). This "artist" and all the people who approved it ("Looks real fine to me!") should be taken to task for producing an obviously poor layout. A public election document that's this important should look and read like it was designed by Apple instead of by Joe The Printer. The voters deserve much better - there's no excuse why this item shouldn't be crisp, clean, clear and unambiguous.

Oct. 21 2010 09:24 PM

Thanks for your comments, Yvonne. We've got a call into the Board of Elections and are waiting for clarification on the NYS/NYC ballot instructions. Stay tuned!

Oct. 21 2010 02:06 PM
Yvonne from Park Slope

In response to:

"Bernie from UWS
The shocker for me is that the Term Limits Proposal is buried on the reverse side of the ballot. Who is going to find it?"

Yes, this was made clear at the time of the primary and is the reason why you can insert the ballot in any direction and upside down - both sides are used. Before the primary, I attended one of those "dress rehearsals" and that is where the propositions go.

Oct. 21 2010 12:34 PM
Yvonne from Park Slope


Regarding the ballot confusion, in response to what I heard on Brian Lehrer this morning, I called the Board of Elections and spoke to someone in the office of Valarie Vasquez who explained that there is a problem in the NYS instructions which states "above or next to" while the NYC ballot has the area to be filled in UNDER the candidate.

She says this is both clarified by the NYC instructions which state correctly "under" and notices that will be in the voting area ... time will tell.

Oct. 21 2010 12:20 PM
Bernie from UWS

The shocker for me is that the Term Limits Proposal is buried on the reverse side of the ballot. Who is going to find it?

Oct. 21 2010 11:38 AM
Bernard Glassman from Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Does NYC have ballots in non-English languages? Is the same error in them? If not, will signs at the polls just confuse things more?

Oct. 21 2010 11:22 AM
Jennifer Kinon from NYC

AIGA/NY, the Professional Association for Design, is discussing ballot design TONIGHT at a FREE event at the Museum of Art+Design on Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Doors open at 6:30PM. Event begins at 7PM. Come hear from critics and activists alike. The evening will end with an open forum critique.

Oct. 21 2010 11:16 AM
Rachel Cline from NYC

The takeaway from this, for me, is "nobody reads." It's the bad news--I think I heard one on-air announcer say that even the first "usability expert" who looked at the ballot missed the problem--but it's also the good news, because most voters will just follow the layout and do fine. (Of course, that doesn't do anything about the basis for questioning results that this creates...) On a related note, it occurred to me yesterday that one reason why the city agency I work for never thinks about usability analysis may be that there is no civil service "line" representing the skill set. How do we fix *that*?

Oct. 21 2010 10:00 AM
carolita from nyc

It's funny, if you just use common sense, it's obvious the instructions are wrong. But when you're in a "test" situation, where you don't want to get things wrong, it's amazing how you can doubt yourself and do something totally obviously wrong, just because the instructions confuse you. It's true, these ballots are going to cause confusion.

Oct. 21 2010 09:55 AM

Our city government is showing their incompetence AGAIN. Why is there even this huge paper ballot? Why not just have a touch screen to vote on, print results on a small scroll of paper, voter checks to see if correct, submit vote electronically with the paper trail printed on the scroll. Not that difficult Board of Elections

Oct. 21 2010 08:48 AM
Julius Sulmonetti from NYC

The absentee ballot has the correct instructions: "...fill in the voting oval under the name of the candidate."

Oct. 21 2010 08:47 AM
DRC from Manhattan

I have an absentee ballot for my son at college. The ballot is still at home & I just checked the instructions, which say "To vote for a candidate whose name in printed on the ballot, completely fill in the voting oval UNDER [my capitals] the name of the candidate." So my ballot instructions are correct. I picked it up from the Manhattan Borough Office of the Board of Elections late last week (10/14 or 10/15).

Oct. 21 2010 08:47 AM
Louise Berenson from UWS

No yellow boxes that I can see.

Oct. 21 2010 08:09 AM

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