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October 25, 2004 07:55 PM

Broken: Ohio ballot design

OhiobutterflyMonica Fry writes from Cuyahoga County in the swing state of Ohio:

Here is a version of our voting ballot that is quite confusing. Candidates that are supposed to be mapped to boxes #12 and #14 have labels and arrows that read #2 and #4. If an individual wants to vote for Bush/Cheney do they mark #4 or #14? Moreover, the non-linear progression of numbers is annoying (6, 10, 2, 4). Hopefully this will be fixed before we Ohio-ans go the polls in a week.

Update 10/26/04: Monica writes in again: "Since I sent it to you, I've learned that this situation is limited to the absentee ballots only."

It's unclear if that's the current version of the ballot, or if it was one of many; if the "2" and "4" are intended that way, or if they were typos and should have been "12" and "14". Regardless - scary.


This is the most complicated ballot I've seen in my whole life. Very confusing indeed.

I don't know why they don't simply print ballots divided in squares, and include in each square the logo of the party and the names of its candidates, and provide in each square a smaller square to check the option of your choice.

Posted by: SAM at October 25, 2004 08:33 PM

Untrue. Monica should well know that the ballot is slipped into a slot in the butterfly ballot, and there's a gutter between each page where you punch a hole next to your choice. Have a look at one here:

The voter is not expected to match numbers on the ballot to numbers on the slip. This is a fallacy being distributed by some right-wingers looking to stir up even more chaos and ill-will than is already present in the Ohio election.

Posted by: Brian at October 25, 2004 09:34 PM

Did some quick followup research. This problem is with the ABSENTEE ballot. It uses the same booklet and card as are typically used in the polls. Voters are supposed to punch the chad corresponding to the candidate in question. But there are several different ballot designs, which rotate the names so people don't just always vote for the first name.

The instructions are reportedly incomplete in that voters are told to punch the chad corresponding to the number of the candidate, but aren't told to disregard the arrows.

Verdict: Poor, broken design? Decidedly so.

Democratic conspiracy? Not so much.

Posted by: Brian at October 25, 2004 09:45 PM

Brian: I don't think that the ballot designer was trying to harm the Republicans, but this design is arguably worse than the Palm Beach butterfly ballot. I've voted using punch-card ballots for the last 14 years, and in all cases the candidate numbers increased as you go down the column. Look at the page you cited: the numbers in the image go straight down, 358 to 364. In Cuyahoga, they don't.

I don't even understand how the Cuyahoga ballot would work for someone voting in person. It looks like Badnarik is supposed to be #2, Bush #4, Kerry #6, and Peroutka #10 in all precincts (see the images). But if that's so, and they rotate the order of the candidates on the ballot, you couldn't place the card in the ballot card holder and have each candidate's name appear right next to their hole in the gutter.

Posted by: Joshua at October 25, 2004 10:23 PM

Okay, my turn to correct myself. Apparently the numbers are not used for ballots for people voting in person; if you vote in person, you just punch the hole next to your preferred candidate, with no numbers being printed on the ballot. The numbering system I described above would apply only to absentee voters.

Cuyahoga County voters, demand that the Board of Elections give you good instructions, and don't rely on what anyone on the web tells you, including me.

Posted by: Joshua at October 25, 2004 10:30 PM

I think it's almost more interesting that people need to keep correcting themselves. That speaks volumes. It's a voting ballot, a lot of people using it probably have some sort of impairment, don't speak english, or read poorly. I, for the life of me, can't understand why a country like Afghanistan that is in tatters, speaks 4 major languages with a number of local dialects and has been a "democracy" for a couple of years can pull off an election and provide ballots with minimal issues and a democracy that's been in effect for over 200 years and has one official language and 2 primary languages can't seem to get it together. After the 2000 election debacle, would it have killed the states to spend a few bucks getting usability in order for the 2004 elections? Sorry to rant, but it really frustrates me that both major candidates had legal teams ready to oppose the results in a number of battleground states. I for one would be happy to have my tax money go to creating a system that guarantees all votes are counted and counted correctly.

End of soapbox rant. Really, I'm sorry, but being in usability and a person that's passionate about the direction our country takes, this really pushes my buttons. I can make do with whichever candidate gets into office by vote, but if the Supreme Court picks my president again, I will be quite frustrated.

Posted by: Dwayne King at October 27, 2004 03:01 AM

I have always wondered why is it that in USA there are so many problem with ballots? I've never heard of any problems with ballots in any other country in Europe or worldwide except the USA.

Why is it that USA have so primitive punch cards? Why not classic ballots with small boxes to be marked with "X" (cross)..

Posted by: dusoft at October 28, 2004 01:42 PM

dusoft: There are several reasons why the USA doesn't generally use paper ballots, the kind on which one writes an X. (A few areas in the USA do still use them, or at least they did until recently.)

The USA tends to have more governmental offices elected, rather than appointed, than other democratic countries do. For example, in the election next week, my ballot will include voting "Yes" or "No" on whether to retain seventy-four different judges in office. That means punching holes Yes or No seventy-four separate times.

With the long ballots that we often have in the USA, it is not surprising that localities would want to find a way to count ballots mechanically or electronically. And the punched card system seemed to work pretty well until 2000, or at least it had not been the subject of a major controversy.

Besides, even where we use paper ballots, you will find that people manage to draw a letter X that misses the box entirely, or an incompletely formed X that looks more like a ^, or they erase one X, write another one and erase it, then rewrite the first one. Never underestimate the ability of people to make errors.

Posted by: Joshua at October 29, 2004 12:18 AM

I wonder why scantron sheets of the nature that are used for multiple choice exams have never been implemented. They're fairly intuitive. Simply print them up in a way that has all of the local candidates listed, with yes or nos beside them, and for the multiple choice ones, set it up accordingly. It wouldn't be that hard to design. Then, put an example at the top of how to "bubble" it in, and feed it through the scanner. If people make mistakes marking an X, they're going to do the same with these, but so what? Maybe if they can't mark an X, they are a little too dumb to be voting?

Posted by: anitsirK at October 30, 2004 11:18 AM

anitsirK: The ballot design you're talking about (optical scan) is currently the most common type of ballot in the United States.

According to

the following types of ballots are in current use:

Optical scan: 34.9%

Electronic: 29.4%

Lever: 14.0%

Punch card: 12.4%

DataVote (pre-printed punchcard; I don't really know what this means): 1.3%

Paper ballot: 0.6%

Multiple systems: 7.4%

Percentages refer to the percentage of registered voters to which each ballot type applies.

Posted by: Joshua at October 30, 2004 10:46 PM

Its obvious from looking at this that it is a terrible design and it is a disservice to the voters to be producing such nonsense with taxpayer funds. As proof that the design is flawed - just look at the discussion here, there is a dispute about how to even vote on the thing.

I also take exception to the bizarre deecision to label the Constitution and Libertarian parties "Other Parties" instead of their actual names since the candidates have strange names and many voters might know that they plan to vote for the Libertarian candidate but can't remember how his name is spelled.

You need to give the voters every chance to vote for the candidate of their choice. Arguments that if they can't figure out nonlinear sequences and such are absurd. If you want that, let's just require IQ tests or college degrees as a condition for voter registration rather than pretending to be democratic and then subverting the process with incomprehensible ballots.

Posted by: J. Scott at October 31, 2004 02:16 PM

Stark County Absentee Ballot.

Why is it that the absentee ballot and the ballot used for the main election different in the same county. Mothers absentee ballot was Marked #9 for Kerry and the one I voted on Tuesday was marked #11. If my mother had voted with same card I did she would have voted for the wrong guy. Who seperates these ballots and how are they counted. Do they keep the absentee ballots seperate from the general election ballots and how is this system monitored. If a recount was needed would these ballots be counted properly, or would this just be another fiasco.

Posted by: Linn at November 8, 2004 07:13 AM

Strange that nothing much has appeared on this since the election. I don't know what the coverage was in the US, but in the UK, Kerry's remarks about "every vote will be counted" and the mechanics of absentee ballots in Ohio were gone through in great detail on BBC Radio 4 (our equivalent of National Public Radio, and the most popular station between 7am and 9am).

Posted by: Simon Trew at November 10, 2004 09:24 PM

Sweet Jesus,

Look, the optical scan ballot is the way to go here. Screw the e-voting and punch cards. Here in Arizona voting is mind-numbingly simple

and looks something like this:

You simply fill in the arrow with your special felt tip pen. Is that so hard? The votes are counted electronically by optical scan, and the voter stays by the machine to ensure that if the machine picks up an error the voter can correct it. Why not use this everywhere? this is ridiculous...

Posted by: Bill McCormick at November 11, 2004 06:45 AM

I think that for the first time in the history of our nation a man with less than triple digit IQ, no previously published books, or even white paper for that matter has been elected president for a 2nd term no less speaks loudly for itself.

pays to be born to a politician.

now THAT is broken!

to the beach

Posted by: imnotright at May 3, 2005 07:43 PM

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