April 26, 2019

Florida is the Florida of ballot-design mistakes

Well designed ballot layouts allow voters to make their intentions clear; badly designed ballots invite voters to make mistakes.  This year, the Florida Senate race may be decided by a misleading ballot layout—a layout that violated the ballot design recommendations of the Election Assistance Commission.

In Miami Palm Beach, Florida in the year 2000, the badly designed “butterfly ballot” misled over 2000 voters who intended to vote for Al Gore, to throw away their vote.  (That’s a strong statement, but it’s backed up by peer-reviewed scientific analysis.)

In Sarasota, Florida in the year 2006, in a Congressional race decided by 369 votes, over 18,000 voters failed to vote in that race, almost certainly because of a badly designed touch-screen ballot layout.

In Broward County, Florida in the year 2018, it appears that a bad optical-scan ballot design caused over 26,000 voters to miss voting in the Senate race, where the margin of victory (as of this writing, not yet final) is 12,562 votes.

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Two cheers for limited democracy in New Jersey

When I voted last week in Princeton, New Jersey, here were the choices I faced, all on one “page”:

I had to vote in 7 contests, total: for Senator, Congress(wo)man, County board, County board unexpired term, City council, Statewide referendum, School board.  Put another way, I had to select 13 choices out of 27 options (not counting write-in options).  The ballot is so short because: New Jersey elects its governor and legislature in odd-numbered years, does not have initiative-and-referendum by petition, does not elect judges.

In contrast, a voter in Los Angeles was given a 76-page packet, in which the 9-page ballot contained optical-scan bubbles to fill in.  The voter had to select 55 choices out of 229 options.

The founders of our democracy designed a Constitution in which (at the Federal level) voters elect representatives and executives who pass legislation, nominate and confirm judges, and so on.  That is, we have limited democracy, in the sense that it is representative.  But some States, especially California, ask voters to decide legislative questions (“propositions”) and elect judges.  Political scientists and informed citizens debate whether that’s a good idea.

Here I’ll consider a particular aspect of that constitutional difference:  Auditability of elections.  It is a clear scientific consensus, and it is becoming a consensus among the citizenry and the States, that we should vote with paper ballots that are recountable by human inspection, and we should have random audits by human inspection of (a random sample of) those paper ballots, just to make sure the voting machines are not malfunctioning or cheating.

Random audits take time, effort, and money–not an enormous cost, but not trivial either.  The cost and difficulty of risk-limiting audits surely increases as the number of contests on the ballot increases.  Auditing New Jersey’s 7 contests (more or less, in different towns) will not be very difficult.  Auditing Los Angeles’s 52 contests will be quite a chore.  Surely that’s one argument for keeping the ballot short.

In practice, risk-limiting audits of California elections are likely to be done in such a way that Federal, statewide, and countywide contests are checked to a specified risk limit (perhaps 5%), but on all ballots examined, all contests are audited.  That will audit many more contests to a risk limit that is not predetermined, and may or may not be small, but will at least be reported as a result of the audit.  In that manner, even LA’s long ballot can be audited.

Why only “two cheers” for New Jersey?  Well, in New Jersey we have “limited democracy” in a different form as well:  we use paperless direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines.  The computers in those machine get to decide what to report about the buttons we pressed, and there are no paper ballots to recount.  We have delegated our representation to whomever was the last to install a computer program in those machines, whether legimitately or illegitimately.  Surely that’s not what the founders intended by “representative democracy.”



When the optical scanners jam up, what then?

In the November 2018 election, many optical-scan voting machines in New York experienced problems with paper jams, caused by the rainy weather and excessive humidity.

Also, this was the first time New York used a 2-page ballot that the voter had to separate at the perforations.  This doubled the number of sheets of paper that the optical scanners had to process.

These two factors caused long lines, and voter frustration, at some polling places.  At some polling places, there were not adequate “emergency ballot boxes” for deposit of not-yet-scanned paper ballots.

New York, like many other states, uses a robust, trustworthy, and reliable means of balloting:  optical-scan paper ballots, hand-marked by the voters (except for those voters who choose to use a ballot-marking device), which the voter deposits directly into an optical scanner.  That is, “precinct-count optical scan” (PCOS).

No voting method is perfect, but PCOS is less imperfect than other methods.  Here are some important principles of precinct-count optical scan:

  1. Feedback: if the voter inadvertently overvotes the ballot (marks too many bubbles in the same contest), the scanner can alert the voter to this problem, giving the voter the chance to correct it by filling in a fresh ballot.
  2. Immediate count:  vote totals are reported as soon as the polls close.  Unofficial (but informative) precinct totals can be reported immediately to the county, to the news media, and to members of the public present at the polling place.  Also, there’s at least one count of the votes before any transportation or handling of ballot boxes.  The paper ballots are legally the ballot of record for recounts, with random audits of paper ballots necessary to detect and deter cheating via hacking of optical scanner software.  But if there is interference with the paper ballots in the chain of custody between the precinct and the audit or recount, the in-the-precinct totals are at least evidence that an investigator or court of law might find useful.
  3. Robustness:  if the power fails, or the optical scanner fails for some other reason, voters can still hand-mark their optical-scan ballots, and deposit them into a ballot box for later counting.

You might notice that “deposit into a ballot box for later counting“ conflicts with ”feedback” and “immediate count.”  What should we do about that?

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