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Study: Design Flaws Contribute to Hundreds of Thousands of Lost Votes in Recent Elections

Design defects in ballots, voter instructions, and voting machines contributed to the loss of several hundred thousand votes in the most recent national elections, a new Brennan Center for Justice study found.

July 31, 2012

Report Details Major Ballot Design Problems, Proposes Non-Partisan Solutions

Contact: Erik Opsal,, 646–292–8356

New York, NY – Design defects in ballots, voter instructions, and voting machines contributed to the loss of several hundred thousand votes in the most recent national elections, a new Brennan Center for Justice study found

In addition, the report notes that in the 2008 and 2010 general elections combined, as many as 400,000 people had their absentee or provisional ballot rejected because they made technical mistakes completing forms or preparing and returning the envelope. Poor design increases the risk of lost or misrecorded votes among all voters, but the risk is even greater for particular groups, including low-income voters, and the elderly.

The comprehensive study outlines simple measures election officials can take before November to cure design defects and ensure every voter can cast a ballot that counts. View a slideshow of design flaws and solutions in recent national elections.

“In the age of smartphones and tablets, many have realized  the importance of good design and usability, but American elections are still marred by major design problems, ” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Center’s Democracy Program and co-author of Better Design, Better Elections. “The rise of absentee and provisional voting since 2000 has made ballot design in our elections even more important. If a voter takes the responsibility to vote, election officials must do everything in their power to make sure that vote counts.”

The Brennan Center’s report details four design and usability problems in 2008 and 2010. Here are a few select examples:

Problem 1: Ballot Layouts that Invite Overvotes or Undervotes

  • In East St. Louis, IL in 2008, the ballot design led 1 in 10 voters to skip the U.S. Senate contest by mistake because of an inadequate header identifying the race. More than twice as many votes were lost in East St. Louis than the rest of the state. The Brennan Center’s revised ballot (page 17) could have saved many hundred votes.

Problem 2: Poor Voter Instructions

  • In the governor’s contest in Ohio in 2010, several counties reported unusually high numbers of voters selecting more than one candidate. The culprit appears to be the instructions, which state “select the set of joint candidates of your choice.” In Cuyahoga County alone, more than 2,000 voters did not have their vote for governor counted because they selected more than one gubernatorial candidate. The Brennan Center’s suggestion for revising the instruction appears on page 25.

Problem 3: Unclear Voting Machine Messages

  • Tens of thousands of votes were not counted in 13 Florida counties in 2008 and in New York State in 2010 because of ineffective overvote warnings. If a voter selected too many candidates in a race, a confusing error message appeared. If the voter pressed the green “Accept” button, marked with a check, the ballot would be cast with the overvote, and the vote would be lost. The Brennan Center’s suggested fixes appear on pages 27 and 28.

Problem 4: Difficult Absentee and Provisional Ballot Envelopes

  • In Minnesota in 2008, nearly 4,000 absentee ballots were not counted because the envelope was not signed. Recognizing the problem, the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office worked with design, usability, and plain language experts in 2009 and 2011 to improve the ballot envelope.  The changes made to the envelope can be found on pages 31 and 33.

“The design flaws that this report documents are not difficult or unknown problems,” said Whitney Quesenbery, co-author of the report and a user experience researcher. “I hope that this stark evidence of lost votes inspires every election official to follow good design principles, and test their work to be sure that voters understand how to fill out forms and mark their ballots so their votes will be counted."

As election officials finalize ballots and other election forms in the next several weeks, the Brennan Center’s report recommends several simple measures that can be taken to ensure votes are counted accurately. Election officials should:

  1. Review data on lost votes to determine what problems they may encounter in November.
  2. Create a checklist of design best practices to make ballots and other election materials better organized and easily comprehensible.
  3. Conduct usability testing to uncover potential problems that may arise.
  4. Make voters aware of potential problems if those issues cannot be addressed before the election.

The Center’s study provides four case studies that demonstrate the powerful impact usability testing, voter education, and other corrective action before an election can have in reducing voter error in elections (beginning on page 36).

For all the latest voting rights news, view the Brennan Center’s Election 2012 page.

To set up an interview, please contact Erik Opsal at or 646–292–8356.