Published in the Poughkeepsie Journal.
Recently, President Obama announced the creation of a federal commission to help improve citizens’ voting experiences at the polls. Here’s an obvious suggestion for improvement in New York: Make our ballots easier for voters to use.
In your polling place in November, things may have looked a little bit different than in the past. For the first time, New Yorkers used optical scanning machines and paper ballots to vote in a presidential election. Many voters, particularly older voters and those with impaired vision, found the paper ballots difficult to read and use. This is because they did not change to reflect our new voting system: Our ballot requirements stayed the same while our ballot size shrunk significantly. As a result, voters faced a crowded and confusing ballot that at best made the voting experience more difficult and at worst invalidated otherwise legitimate votes.
New York’s ballots are governed by strict, outdated guidelines intended for the retired mechanical voting machines. These rules do not allow best practices for paper ballots, and led to our 2012 ballots containing complicated instructions, outdated symbols, small text size and confusing oval placement. Unfortunately, without a change in New York’s codified election law, local election officials are prevented from improving the voter experience in their community.
There can be little question that poor ballot design leads to a far more negative experience for voters. As a 2010 statewide survey by the League of Women Voters found, up to 20 percent of voters had problems completing the paper ballot. Poorly designed ballots can invalidate votes and interfere with the integrity of our election process. 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. Evidence suggests that low-income and elderly voters particularly bear the brunt of poorly designed ballots, raising fundamental issues of access to the political process.
We can do better.
The Voter Friendly Ballot Act of 2013, sponsored by state Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh and endorsed by the AARP, the Brennan Center for Justice, and many other organizations concerned with voting rights, would set new standards to ensure that New Yorkers can vote with confidence while preserving flexibility for local election administrators. Voter instructions would be shortened and clarified, legibility would be increased by reducing the maximum number of languages appearing on the ballot, and text size would be made more readable, among other improvements.
There are many complex issues facing our voting system that President Obama’s commission needs to address. For our ballot design problems, however, the solution is simple — update our rules so they better reflect our new voting process and improve the voting experience of all New Yorkers.