Potential Ballot Trouble In OH: Split Contests

October 1, 2008

ballotBy our count, at least twelve Ohio counties have split the presidential contest over two columns on their paper ballots for this November's election. This "column split" often confuses voters and results in double voting in the presidential race — and an uncounted vote. Today the Brennan Center urged election officials and advocates in Ohio to make sure that voters are aware of the split, and to make sure they vote only once for president.

The twelve Ohio counties whose ballots spilt the presidential race over two columns are: Ashtabula, Athens, Auglaize, Champaign, Delaware, Lawrence, Logan, Madison, Ottawa, Seneca, Shelby, and Wyandot.

As a quick glance will show, it's no surprise that many voters cast two votes for president when the contest is listed across two separate columns. The one on the right is from Auglaize County (click to see larger).

In July, the Brennan Center published Better Ballots, a study of ballot design flaws in the last several elections and their impact on those elections. The study showed that ballots that featured a single contest split into two columns, as seen in the illustration of Auglaize County's ballot above, frequently confused voters. A split contest like this is often seen by voters as indicating two separate tasks (i.e., vote once in each box) and can lead to unintentional overvoting.

In 2002, in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, for example, the ballot listed the candidates for the gubernatorial election in two columns. Nearly 12% of voters in the county did not have a vote counted in the race; this compares to only 1.1% of voters statewide. The low number of votes recorded in the gubernatorial election in Kewaunee County was undoubtedly because many voters believed the governor's race was actually two races, and voted twice in that race — once for one of the candidates boxed in together in the first column, and once again for one of the candidates boxed in the second column. As a result, none of their votes for Governor counted.

The Brennan Center and the United States Election Assistance Commission have issued ballot design guidelines strongly recommending that a single contest be placed in a single column on a ballot. For the Ohio counties with split presidential columns, the Brennan Center urges election officials and advocates to make sure that voters are aware of the split, and to make sure voters vote only once for president.

Hundreds of thousands of voters have been disenfranchised in recent elections due to badly designed ballots and confusing voting instructions—particularly elderly, low-income and new voters.

To see the Brennan Center's ballot design study, Better Ballots, and read more about how specific ballot design flaws continue to plague voters in 2008, visit the Brennan Centers' interactive demonstration here.

10/2/08 note: On September 17, 2008, the Brennan Center, in conjunction with AIGA Design for Democracy, the Usability Professionals' Association, and Professor David Kimball of the University of Missouri, St. Louis, wrote a memo to Ohio county boards of elections urging them to place the presidential contest in a single column on their ballots. The Office of the Secretary of State of Ohio reviewed drafts of this memo and provided the three groups with comments. We were happy to learn from the Secretary's office that they forwarded the memo to all county election officials on September 17 as well.