Much-hyped concerns about foreign hacks or technology meltdowns aren’t the only things that can lead to election woes.
As Floridians well know, trouble can come from something as seemingly simple as ballot design.
New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice this month published a nationwide guide on bad ballot design and ways to fix it. Among the five examples cited: the 2018 general election ballot in Broward County.
The South Florida county printed the U.S. Senate contest between Rick Scott and Bill Nelson on the lower left-hand side of the ballot, below a long list of instructions. That led some voters to accidentally miss voting in the race altogether, researchers later found.
About 3.5 percent fewer people in Broward voted for the Senate race than voted for most other statewide races, including governor. At the time, some voters said they found the ballot confusing or said they overlooked the Senate race.
“If a ballot has a confusing layout, it can have a substantial impact on the result of the election, to the tune of tens or even hundreds of thousands of votes,” Lawrence Norden, director of the Brennan Center’s Electoral Reform Program, said in a statement. He said elections officials have time before the 2020 election to ensure good ballot design.
The Brennan Center guide calls out other examples of poor ballot design it has seen across the country, citing, for instance, the 2018 general election in Memphis, Tenn., in which sample ballots looked different from the actual ballots, or how some areas of Georgia had multiple contests on the same electronic ballot screen in 2018.
It also warned about having easy-to-read mail-in ballot envelopes, and pointed to issues with splitting candidates for the same office onto two pages or columns — saying some areas in California had done this poorly in 2016 when trying to fit 34 candidates running in the U.S. Senate primary.
Florida elections supervisors have already begun sending out mail-in ballots for the March 17 presidential preference primary.
Following the 2018 issues, Florida enacted a law that requires ballot instructions to either be centered across the top of the ballot or to be in the left-most column with no individual races in that column unless it’s the only column on the ballot. The state also has other rules governing ballot design.
The Florida Department of State has proposed a rule related to uniform design for election ballots. The Brennan Center said it submitted a public comment on the rule, suggesting edits such as capping the maximum number of columns on a ballot to three instead of four.
Broward’s current supervisor of elections, Pete Antonacci, sends ballot designs to the entire county commission, the legislative delegation, the candidates and representatives of both major parties for review, in addition to the canvassing board and staff, said spokesman Steve Vancore. Antonacci replaced Brenda Snipes, who ran the 2018 Broward elections.
The Brennan Center, a nonpartisan, progressive-leaning law and policy institute, collaborated with the Center for Civic Design on the ballot guide.
That center worked with the Escambia County Supervisor of Elections office to redo its mail-in ballot envelope in time for the 2016 elections, including adding a checklist, instructions with simple illustrations, larger text and color to highlight the signature area.
The Brennan Center guide said the redesign helped Escambia see an 18 percent drop in mail-in ballots missing a signature during the 2016 presidential election compared with the 2012 presidential election.
“How we design the materials, whether it’s a ballot or ballot envelope or instructions or signage, all of that is important in how you communicate to voters,” said David Stafford, the supervisor of elections in Escambia. He said he just had to redesign his mail-in ballot envelopes again to make them bilingual, and said he reached out to the Center for Civic Design again for help.
“You have to think, are there better ways to communicate the things the voter needs to know so they fill out their ballot correctly and get it counted?” Stafford said.