Making Ballots Better

by John Sides on May 13, 2013

in Campaigns and elections,National Science Foundation

This is the first article featured in this week’s series about NSF-funded political science research—and specifically research published in the American Journal of Political Science in 2012.  This is research by Paul Herrnson, Michael Hanmer, and Richard Niemi.  The article is here.  This is how they described it:

Something as simple as the design of a ballot can influence how citizens vote and especially how and how frequently voters make errors when choosing candidates.  We conducted an experiment in which voters’ intentions were known and these intentions were compared to the votes they cast using two different types of ballots.  Both ballots used the standard “office-bloc” format, but one ballot also included a straight-party option—where filling in one circle or arrow or touching one button automatically registers a vote for all of a party’s candidates.  Fifteen states currently provide a straight-party option.

Our central finding: voters make more errors when using the ballot with the straight-party option. Some of the experiment’s participants failed to vote for any candidate when they intended to support one.  Even more participants selected the wrong candidate—that is, the opponent of the candidate they actually supported.  These errors, while not common in absolute terms, were about 4-5 times more likely when participants made their choices using the ballot with the straight-ticket option.  This was true regardless of whether participants voted using a paper ballot or a touchscreen.  The elderly, African Americans, and those without a high school education were particularly likely to make errors using the straight-party ballot.

Voting is one of the most important rights of citizens.  It is a serious problem if citizens make the effort to vote and know who they intend to vote for, but then vote incorrectly because of ballot design. Ballots designed for the hand-marked, hand-counted paper ballots introduced at the end of the nineteenth century lead to errors when used on modern voting systems.  Because most state legislatures have already purchased new voting systems, it will be more cost effective for legislators to focus on improving ballot designs. Given the centrality of elections to representative democracy, such efforts are warranted.

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