Bad Ballots and Lost Votes: The Path to Better Ballot Design
August 11, 2020
A ballot is one of the most important tools of a functioning democracy, and yet poorly designed ballots continue to disenfranchise thousands of voters every year. What do ballot defects look like? And how can election officials remedy them?
Every election, after all the advertisements and debates are over, it all comes down to one thing: the ballot. It might be a piece of paper or flashing pixels on a screen. One way or another, the ballot is where the rubber hits the road in a functioning democracy, serving as the critical way voters choose their representatives in government.
Throughout American history, ballot design and election administration have been contested ground. As we saw with the notorious butterfly ballots and “hanging chads” in the 2000 presidential election, ballot design can have an outsized impact on election outcomes. And yet, poorly designed ballots continue to disenfranchise tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of voters every year.
Confusing ballot layouts and instructions harm all voters, but low-income voters, new voters, and elderly voters most of all. All too often, the loss of votes and rates of errors caused by poor design exceed candidates’ margins of victory, casting doubt on whether election outcomes always reflect voters’ intentions. What do these ballot defects look like? How can election officials remedy them? And why is this issue especially urgent right now?
This virtual panel discussion addressed these questions. Brennan Center election experts discussed sound ballot design principles and how better processes for creating and testing ballots can prevent lost or erroneous votes. They were joined by Alicia Yin Cheng, graphic designer and author of This Is What Democracy Looked Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot. Cheng’s book is the first illustrated history of printed ballot design, and it illuminates the paramount but often flawed process at the heart of our democracy.
This event was produced in partnership with the Brennan Center for Justice and NYU Votes.
Victoria Bassetti, Fellow, Brennan Center for Justice
Victoria Bassetti is a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. She is the author of Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manual for American Voters, the companion book to a PBS documentary by the same name. Her writings have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, Politico, USA Today, Washington Monthly, and Harper’s. She worked on Capitol Hill for almost a decade. Among other posts, she served as chief counsel to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and legislative director for Sen. John Edwards (D-NC). She was chief counsel and staff director of a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee and served on the team that drafted the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, the Patriot Act, the Economic Espionage Act, and the Homeland Security Act and oversaw matters related to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
While on Capitol Hill, Bassetti led a multiyear, multihearing bipartisan investigation into innovation and competition in the medical device field that culminated in a first-ever voluntary code of conduct agreed to by hospital device purchasing organizations. The code was heralded by the New York Times as “sweeping” and aimed at “mak[ing] it easier for new, lifesaving medical products to reach hospitals faster.” She was also the line Democratic counsel on the bipartisan Ruby Ridge investigation, which culminated in a series of congressional requirements imposed on the FBI, ATF, and U.S. Marshal’s Service. She was also a member of the select team of lawyers that oversaw the Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.
Alicia Yin Cheng, Graphic Designer and Author, This Is What Democracy Looked
Alicia Yin Cheng is the author of This Is What Democracy Looked Like. This book is the first illustrated history of printed ballot design, illuminates the noble but often flawed process at the heart of our democracy. An exploration and celebration of US ballots from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this visual history reveals unregulated, outlandish, and, at times, absurd designs that reflect the explosive growth and changing face of the voting public. The ballots offer insight into a pivotal time in American history—a period of tectonic shifts in the electoral system—fraught with electoral fraud, disenfranchisement, scams, and skullduggery, as parties printed their own tickets and voters risked their lives going to the polls.
Ilya Marritz, WNYC Senior Reporter; Co-Host of Trump, Inc
Ilya Marritz is a senior reporter at WNYC and the co-host of Trump, Inc.
Ilya was born and raised in Manhattan. His work has been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, On The Media, Planet Money, and The World. He has contributed print pieces to The Daily News, The New Yorker online, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the Financial Times. Since 2018, he has been the co-host of the duPont silver baton-winning podcast Trump, Inc., produced by WNYC and ProPublica.
He previously hosted The Season, a podcast about a struggling college football team, the Columbia University Lions.
He has worked as a reporter at WNYC since 2008. Prior to that, Ilya was a producer at The Brian Lehrer Show and at NPR's All Things Considered, and a reporter at Radio Prague.
Larry Norden, Director, Election Reform, Democracy Program, Brennan Center for Justice
Lawrence Norden is the director of the Election Reform Program, where he leads the Brennan Center’s work in a variety of areas, including its effort to bring balance to campaign funding and break down barriers that keep Americans from participating in politics, ensure that U.S. election infrastructure is secure and accessible to every voter, and protect elections from foreign interference. His work has been featured in media outlets across the country, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and National Public Radio. He has testified before Congress and several state legislatures on numerous occasions.
In 2009, Norden served as chair of the Ohio secretary of state's bipartisan Election Summit and Conference, authoring a report to the State of Ohio on improving that state’s election laws. The report was endorsed by the bipartisan Ohio Association of Election Officials and the Columbus Dispatch, which praised the report for “following an independent path.”
Norden was the keynote speaker at the Sixth Annual Votobit International Conference on Electronic Voting (Buenos Aires, 2008) and the 2009 Electronic Voting Technology Workshop/Workshop on Trustworthy Elections (Montreal, 2009). In June 2009, he received the Usability Professional Association's Usability In Civic Life Award for his “pioneering work to improve elections.”
Norden is the lead author of the book The Machinery of Democracy: Protecting Elections in an Electronic World (Academy Chicago Press, 2006) and a contributor to the Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties (Routledge, 2006). He is a member of the Election Assistance Commission’s Board of Advisors, where he currently serves as vice chair of the Election Security Committee. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago and NYU School of Law.
NYU Votes was launched in 2018 with the goal of giving every single eligible NYU student the opportunity to cast their ballot. We provide resources, instruction, and lots of outreach to keep our student voting community informed of the deadlines and processes for both registering and voting. Please visit nyu.edu/nyu-votes or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.