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Analysis

Poor Ballot Design Hurts New York’s Minor Parties…Again

The New York City Board of Elections did it again. On this year’s ballot, candidates for governor will be on two rows, which can cause confusion and mistakes.

  • Tomas Lopez
October 23, 2014

The New York City Board of Elec­tions did it again. On this year’s ballot, candid­ates for governor will be on two rows, which can cause confu­sion and mistakes. Worse, the ballot is designed in a way to prevent confu­sion for those who want to cast votes on the Demo­cratic or Repub­lican line, and cause confu­sion (and lost votes) for those who want to vote for minor parties.

Here’s why that’s a prob­lem.

In past elec­tions, the Bren­nan Center has high­lighted the prob­lems caused by confus­ingly designed ballots — and in partic­u­lar, confus­ing designs in New York. This poor design increases the risk of lost or misrecor­ded votes — and that risk is even greater for partic­u­lar groups, includ­ing low-income voters and the elderly. New York City is a large juris­dic­tion with a recent history of poorly designed ballots that are espe­cially prone to “over­votes,” which are when a voter (almost always acci­dent­ally) selects more than one candid­ate for the same office.

As detailed in an Octo­ber 23 letter from the Bren­nan Center to the New York City Board of Elec­tions, the city’s 2014 general elec­tion ballot is again diffi­cult to read. The city took the state’s sample ballot and changed it in a way that makes it much more likely that those who vote for one of the minor parties for governor will over­vote.

This is the sample ballot the New York State Board of Elec­tions sent to the city Board this fall after it certi­fied the candid­ates for this year’s ballot. There are 10 candid­ates for governor split into two rows of five.

New York State sample ballot

The New York City Board, made up entirely of Demo­crats and Repub­lic­ans, changed this ballot. Under­stand­ing that many voters choose to vote a “straight ticket” (for instance, all Demo­crats or all Conser­vat­ive or Green Party candid­ates), they made sure Demo­crats and Repub­lic­ans didn’t share their columns with any other party.

New York City ballot

As a result, there is no risk that someone voting a straight ticket for Demo­crats or Repub­lican will over­vote. By contrast someone voting a straight ticket for the Conser­vat­ive, Work­ing Famil­ies, or other minor parties may indeed over­vote. That’s partic­u­larly true because the City Board has done such a poor job of making clear where one contest ends and another begins. That plainly puts minor polit­ical parties like the Conser­vat­ive Party and the Work­ing Famil­ies Party at a disad­vant­age — and the city has no justi­fic­a­tion for doing so.

The city could have avoided this prob­lem entirely by adopt­ing a sens­ible, clear ballot design, like the concept that the Bren­nan Center and visual design experts proposed two years ago in Better Design, Better Elec­tions:

Better Design sample ballot

As it happens, this is similar to the design adop­ted in the rest of the state, where minor parties are not doubled up. Instead, New York City voters will be faced with another confus­ing ballot this Novem­ber. That is bad in itself, but those who choose to cast their votes for minor parties will bear a special risk of losing their votes because of a poor design that penal­izes every­one who chooses to vote neither Demo­cratic nor Repub­lican.