Expert: How Ballot Design Could Impact Broward County Election Results

Nov 12, 2018

Broward County is expected to start its recount Tuesday in three contested statewide races: U.S. Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner. Florida has until 3 p.m. Thursday to finish counting more than 8 million ballots.

 


Broward has been at the center of the vote-count drama because of an unusual case of what's called "undervoting." About 25,000 people voted in the governor's race - but not in the U.S. Senate race. That's bigger than the margin that currently separates Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson. 

The way the ballot was designed may explain why. The U.S. Senate race and a congressional race were located on the bottom left corner of some ballots in Broward.

Whitney Quesenbery is co-director of the Center for Civic Design. It’s a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that looks at ballot design. She spoke with WLRN’s Alexander Gonzalez.

QUESENBERY: Design can in fact influence how people mark their ballot – not who they choose to vote for necessarily. But that process of what they choose to vote for on the ballot. But on the Broward ballot, from what I've seen of the sample ballots online, the big thing on that ballot is that two relatively important races, the two federal races, are tucked down at the bottom below the instructions. They have more text so they have actually more words even in English and then they have it in Spanish and then they have it in Creole and then way down to the bottom of a long page, they start with the first contest for Senate. 

When people come to a ballot, maybe they come in knowing who they want to vote for. They sort of have a list either in mind or maybe they've made a little cheat sheet for themselves and they're looking for every contest they want to vote for. Then there are other voters who might come in and they sort of figure what's you know the things they're going to vote for are going to be in front of them. They see that first column it's got some instructions in it. They think I don't need the instructions I know how to mark a ballot. So that's what we call "rushers," people who rush through reading. 

What else from the pictures that you've seen really stood out to you? 

It's a pretty common design layout. The big difference here is that with three languages — and remember, Spanish and Creole, the same message in the two languages is longer in the two. So when you try to make a trilingual ballot, then everything takes up more space, and that means that everybody has to read through more things to know where to skip.

Do counties like Broward have a design person there to offer expertise? To say, look if you put this at the bottom-left corner of the ballot, odds are that people are going to miss that. 

Most of the time, no, the counties don't have a design person there. I'm sure you know that all local government works on a shoestring these days because we've cut the budgets to the bone. They don't have those resources and they have to do this work very quickly because the time between the final candidate filing and when those first ballots have to go out to overseas voters is very fast. 

Our design standards need to be better. Someone pointed out that even our guidelines, which we've put out a small set of booklets called "The Field Guide to Ensuring Voter Intent" that look at best practice design. They're not meant to be comprehensive. They're the sort of top 10 things you'd think of about a form or about ballots or about instructions. Even they don't say, don't put something at the bottom, below the instructions. Similarly, the Elections Assistance Commission from which some of our work is derived has best practices for ballot design; and they don't say it explicitly either. The state does, but the state didn't think about what happens when you have three languages and a long ballot.

There are things that we could do to help raise the design IQ of our election departments. We could have some testing. We could make sure that more people get to check those ballots and those might include, say, a design expert. They're just there to do a quick check afterwards and say, is this right?

Is Florida experiencing right now some déjà vu from 2000. Or have things gotten better in terms of ballot design? 

I think it's déjà vu from 2000 and 2006 actually. I think nationally in general we’ve gotten better ballot design. One of the big advantages over either 2000 or 2006 is that this time we have paper ballots to recount. There’s a way to go back and see whether the machines made the mistake, voters made the mistake, or voters decide not to vote in a contest. That’s really a step forward.