Report: 60,000 New York Votes Lost Due to Poor Design in 2010

December 6, 2011

New York – A new Brennan Center for Justice analysis of data from the 2010 election indicates more than 20,000 votes for governor in New York were lost because machines read them as “overvotes,” ballots with too many candidates selected. Even more votes were lost in other contests – 30,000 to 40,000 more – according to the Brennan Center’s report, Design Deficiencies and Lost Votes. The analysis finds New York voting machines’ confusing and misleading overvote warning message is at fault, as well as the state’s outdated ballot design.

 “Unlike the new optical scan voting system, New York’s old lever machines did not allow overvoting. But even so, the overvote numbers in 2010 were far greater than they should have been,” write the report’s authors, Lawrence Norden and Sundeep Iyer. They argue “a well-functioning voting system, even one that includes optical scanning equipment, should have overvote rates very close to zero.”

“With more than 1 in 20 voters losing their vote in a number of districts, this is a voting system crisis that has gone unrecognized,” said Norden. “To solve these problems and move forward, we need to get serious about election administration in New York,” he added. Norden cited full disclosure of all voting machine tallies after elections, an overhaul of outdated ballot design requirements, and better public access to ballots and recount procedures as key elements for a fix.

The report’s key findings include:

  • Statewide, about 20,000 votes were lost in the governor’s contest alone, with between 50,000 and 60,000 overvotes in all contests.
    • These numbers could easily be doubled in a presidential election year, resulting in over 100,000 overvotes.
    • Polling places with high concentrations of poor residents and language minorities had the highest overvote rates.
    • Two election districts in the South Bronx had overvote rates of close to 40 percent. To date, the Board of Elections has announced no investigation findings as to why this occurred.
  • New York City and other counties in New York State are not fully leveraging information provided by voting machines to ensure that all intended votes are counted.
    • Only one county in the entire state – Rockland County –publishes overvote data by election district.
    • Even when responding to discovery requests during litigation, New York City claimed to be unable to produce precinct-level data for more than half of all election districts in Queens and Brooklyn.
    • Of the 57 counties outside New York City, 28 failed to produce requested overvote data at all.
  • Poor ballot design leads to more overvotes.
    • Data from New York City suggests that a confusing ballot design led to many hundreds of extra overvotes.
    • The contests for governor and for Sen. Gillibrand’s seat had the two highest overvote rates in New York City; these were the only two contests where the candidates were listed over two rows.
    • These results reaffirm the connection, established in several national studies, between poor ballot design and higher overvote rates.

The report includes detailed breakdowns of the overvote data from the 2010 election in New York City, including multiple tables and color-coded maps. The report also includes information on the steps New York is undertaking to address the problem as well as recommendations for further reducing overvotes.

The full report, Design Deficiencies and Lost Votes, can be viewed or downloaded on the Brennan Center’s web site. For more information or to request an interview with the report’s authors, contact Andrew Goldston at 646.292.8372 or andrew.goldston@nyu.edu.