Skip Navigation

Letter Regarding Mississippi Ballot Design

Concerned that the confusing layout will mislead and disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Mississippi voters this November, a letter was sent to the Governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General.

Published: September 11, 2008



Septem­ber 11, 2008

Honor­able Haley Barbour
Governor of Missis­sippi
P.O. Box 139
Jack­son, MS 39205

Honor­able Delbert Hose­mann
Secret­ary of State of Missis­sippi
P.O. Box 136
Jack­son, MS 39205

Honor­able Jim Hood
Attor­ney General of Missis­sippi
P.O. Box 220
Jack­son, MS 39205

Dear Governor Barbour, Secret­ary Hose­mann, and Attor­ney General Hood:

We read with alarm an edit­or­ial in today’s New York Times (“Missis­sip­pi’s Ballot Trick,” A24) that describes your decision to place the Wicker-Musgrove U.S. Senate race in this Novem­ber’s elec­tion at the bottom of Missis­sip­pi’s ballot.  We urge you, as members of the State Board of Elec­tion Commis­sion­ers, to recon­sider this decision.  Fail­ure to do so will likely confuse, mislead and disen­fran­chise hundreds of thou­sands of voters in Missis­sippi.

The Bren­nan Center, with the assist­ance of the nation’s lead­ing usab­il­ity experts, polit­ical scient­ists, elec­tion offi­cials, and design­ers who have closely stud­ied the effect of ballot design on lost votes, recently completed a compre­hens­ive study of ballot design mistakes and their impact on voters over the last decade.  A key find­ing of the study is that poor ballot design—such as placing a U.S. Senate race at the bottom of a ballot, when all other federal races are at the top—­frus­trates voters, under­mines confid­ence in the elect­oral process, and often results in the loss of a large number of votes.

In Better Ballots we found that place­ment of a contest on a ballot has a tremend­ous impact on whether voters’ choices are accur­ately recor­ded.  When a contest is not placed where voters expect it to be placed, those voters are more likely to make error­s—and in partic­u­lar, to miss the contest alto­gether.  For instance, in 2006 in Sara­sota County, the contest for Congres­sional District 13 was displayed on the touch-screen machines’ ballot in a place that made it diffi­cult for many voters to find.  The result was that approx­im­ately 15% of voters using these machines did not record a vote in the Congres­sional race, compared to just 2.5% of voters who voted on absentee ballots (which did not use the confus­ing design).

In general, the further down on a ballot a contest is placed, the less likely voters are to vote on it.  We can see this by look­ing at the number of voters who did not record votes in the final contest on ballots in Missis­sippi in 2002 and 2004.  Accord­ing to research performed by Professor David Kimball of the Univer­sity of Missouri and a co-author of Better Ballots, approx­im­ately 3%—or 18,000—of all voters failed to record votes in Congres­sional races at the top of the ballot in Missis­sippi in 2002.  By contrast 21%—or more than 140,000 voter­s—­did not have votes coun­ted on a statewide Amend­ment, located at the bottom of most ballots that same year.  Simil­arly, in 2004, 7%—or 88,000 voter­s—­failed to record a vote on a widely publi­cized Amend­ment related to gay marriage.

Low-income and minor­ity voters are likely to be dispro­por­tion­ately impacted by your decision to move the U.S. Senate contest to the bottom of the ballot; several stud­ies have shown that voters from these communit­ies are even more likely than others to fail to vote in contests down ballot.  For instance, Professor Kimball finds that only 3.5% of voters in counties with median incomes of greater than $32,500 failed to vote on the gay marriage Amend­ment in 2004; that number increased to 5.8% for counties with median incomes between $25,000 and $32,500, and jumped again to 10.6% for counties with median incomes below $25,000.  Simil­arly, just 4.7% of voters in counties with less than 30% African Amer­ican popu­la­tion failed to cast a vote on the gay marriage Amend­ment; in counties with more than 30% African Amer­ic­ans, that number was 9.2%.

We do not believe that your place­ment of local special elec­tion contests at the end of the ballot in recent years should have any impact on where to place the Wicker-Musgrove U.S. Senate contest this year.  Local contests are always at or near the bottom of the ballot in Missis­sippi, regard­less of whether they are part of a special elec­tion.  In the special race to fill the remainder of Trent Lott’s term, the Wicker-Musgrove race, most voters will expect to find it near the top of the ballot, with other federal and statewide contests.  We can think of no legit­im­ate public purpose in design­ing a ballot that will conflict with those expect­a­tions.  For that reason, and to prevent wide­spread voter confu­sion and disen­fran­chise­ment in this Senate race, we strongly urge you to reverse your decision and place the Wicker-Musgrove race on the same portion of the ballot as all other federal contests.


Lawrence Norden
Coun­sel, Demo­cracy Program