How Bad is North Carolina’s Ballot Flaw? The Numbers Say, Pretty Bad.

October 21, 2008

Mecklenburg County Sample BallotSome of you may have read about North Carolina's very confusing straight-party voting rules and ballots.  If history is any guide, this has the potential to have a huge impact on the outcome of the presidential contest in North Carolina. 

North Carolina, like 14 other states, has an option on the ballot that allows voters to cast a straight-party ballot with one mark.  Straight-party voting allows voters to vote quickly and easily, and often results in more votes for down-ballot contests.  But it presents some serious usability challenges for voters.  And In North Carolina, straight-party voting is particularly tricky: a straight-party vote (counter-intuitively) does not include a vote for president—voters must make a separate mark under the presidential contest (this is in contrast to other states, like Texas, where attempting to vote for President after choosing straight party voting could nullify one's vote).

Perhaps not surprisingly, in the last few elections, North Carolina has had an unusually high number of voters who did not cast votes in the presidential election.  Dr. Justin Moore of Duke University estimates 3.15% of voters did not have votes recorded for President in 2000, and 2.57% did not have votes cast for president in 2004.*  As we noted in our recent report Better Ballots, having more than 1% of voters fail to cast a vote in the presidential contest is unusual and often an indication of a ballot design flaw or other problem.

It's possible that North Carolina's confusing straight-party voting law and ballots haven't attracted much attention in the past because there hasn't been a close presidential contest in the state in quite some time.  But this year, having 2% or more of voters inadvertantly skip the presidential contest may very well have an impact on the outcome.  As we've noted before, ballot design flaws tend to disproportionaltely impact three groups, who are likely to be heavily represented in North Carolina's election this year: the poor, the elderly, and new voters.

We've posted a couple of sample ballots from this year's election in North Carolina.  One is a paper optical scan ballot being used in Durham County.  And one is a "DRE" or electronic ballot being used in Mecklenburg County.  North Carolina's optical scan and electronic ballots have some good features that are discussed in Better Ballots, such as shading office titles, that will help voters navigate the ballot.  The straight-party voting option, however, could cause thousands of lost votes.

Durham County Sample Ballot

A better optical scan ballot layout would have bumped the straight-party voting information to the second column, to ensure that voters don't miss the presidential contest that is listed first.  A better DRE electronic ballot layout would have placed the presidential race by itself on the first screen, followed by the straight-party voting option on the next screen, to ensure that voters are aware that these are separate voting tasks.

The Brennan Center calls on election officials to make sure that North Carolina voters are aware that a straight-party vote does not include a vote for president, and that they must make a mark in the presidential contest for a vote for president to be counted.  At the same time, we're working with local voting rights groups in North Carolina to get the word out far and wide.

Update: We just spoke to Professor David Kimball, Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri, St. Louis who notes that until as recently as 2007 (when the law was changed), the only other state that did not include the presidential contest in its straight party voting was South Carolina which—surprise—had similarly high "undervote" rates in the presidential contest in 2000 and 2004.

* Update 10/31/08: Professor David Kimball of the University of Missouri, a leading expert on residual vote rates, had independently estimated that 2.2% of voters in North Carolina had no voter recorded in 2004.  The Election Assistance Commission's 2004 Election Day Survey found a nearly 2% undervote rate for president in North Carolina, more than double the national average of 0.87%.  According to the survey, it is the second highest undervote rate in the country, after New Mexico, which had major problems with their voting machines that election (they were later replaced) and the third highest residual vote rate (no vote recorded for president) in the country, after New Mexico and Idaho (where a number of counties used punchcards in 2004).