This year has seen no shortage of controversy over Ohio voting rules. And the Brennan Center has vigorously disagreed with some of the decisions made by the current Secretary of State Jon Husted. But we must give credit where it is due: the Secretary has issued a truly excellent directive on ballot layout, design, and instructions. Other state election directors around the country would do well to follow his lead.
In a state like Ohio — poster child for the politicization of election administration over the last 10 years — it is easy to forget what good election administration should be about: ensuring that citizens can express their preference for candidates and policies through the vote. Few things are more important to realizing that goal than employing good ballot design.
The Brennan Center has estimated that design defects in ballots and voter instructions contributed to the loss of several hundred thousand votes in the last two federal elections. In fact, poor design and instructions has been a particular problem in Ohio in recent years. All too often, those losses occurred because state election directors put out bad directives, or none at all.
Here are some of the highlights of the directive, which we’d like to see other jurisdictions adopt:
First, the directive provides instructions that are brief, simple, and clear. Confusing instructions have been a problem in Ohio in the past, including in the 2010 election.
That year, this instruction seems to have misled many voters to vote more than once in the governor’s contest.
Cleveland Ohio, 2010
The directive also states that counties should not split the presidential contest, or any other candidate contest across columns (on paper ballots) or screens (on touchscreen machines). In 2008, several Ohio counties split the presidential contest over two columns. This apparently confused some voters, and led them to believe that the second column was a separate contest. Of course, voting twice in the presidential contest will cancel out your vote.
Augalize County Ohio 2008
Counties that split the presidential contest in Ohio had 50 percent more lost votes than those that did not.
Finally, the directive states that the contests for president, U.S. Senate, and U.S. Congress must be on separate screens on touch screen voting machines. This will help Ohio avoid the kind of problem we saw in Sarasota County in 2006, when more than 14,000 voters skipped the congressional contest in a race decided by just 369 votes.
Sarasota County, FL 2006
Issuing a good directive on ballot design won’t win any newspaper headlines. But it can vastly improve elections. For all of the heat and attention generated by the voting wars, isn’t that what we really want from our election officials?