Date Published: 2008-11-30
Author(s):R. Michael Alvarez, California Institute of Technology
Does ballot design “matter”? Does the design of ballots influence how voters cast their ballots, and thereby affect the outcome of an election? Anecdotal evidence indicates that ballot design may be a very important factor in American elections. Probably the most well-known ballot design question is the now infamous “butterfly” ballot design, from the 2000 Florida election. The “butterfly” ballot design was argued to have confused many voters, especially the elderly (who might have had trouble with the visual layout of the “butterfly” ballot) and low-information voters (who might have been mislead by poor instructions and cognitive confusion). Unfortunately, while there was a great deal of rhetoric about the potential impact of the “butterfly” ballot design, there has not been anywhere near as much scientific research in to the exact impact such a ballot design might have had nor whom it might have affected most.
But other examples abound where ballot design issues may have played a role in some recent election. An excellent case is the 2001 June mayoral runoff election in the City of Compton, California.3 The Compton City Clerk, in an apparent misunderstanding of California state elections law regarding ballot design, failed to correctly randomize the name of candidates on the runoff election ballot. Following state elections law, the Compton City Clerk requested and used the appropriate randomized list of candidate names in the March 2001 primary election, but he again used the same randomized list for the June 2001 runoff election (according to the court ruling in this case, the Clerk should have requested and used a second randomized list for the runoff election).
The sitting incumbent mayor, Omar Bradley, was listed second on the runoff election ballot; his challenger, Eric Perrodin, was listed first and won the election by a slim 261 vote margin. The expert witness for Bradley, Jon Krosnick, testified that this incorrect ordering of candidate names on the runoff ballot could have accounted for at least the 261 vote margin, and perhaps many more ballots for Perrodin. The court was convinced by Krosnick’s testimony, and on this basis alone, ruled in Bradley’s favor, threw out the results of the June 2001 runoff election, and reinstated Bradley as mayor of the City of Compton.
These are just two examples of ways in which ballot design has been argued to affect two recent elections. But they point to two areas of election administration that have been largely neglected by social science. Much more research on these two areas, and other areas, of ballot design are necessary. At a time in which many election jurisdictions are investing considerable sums of money in the purchase of new voting systems, clearly more insight into how ballots are designed is necessary. In the remainder of this essay, I take up a series of what I consider to the important general topics regarding ballot design. I conclude the essay by outlining some general principles for scientific study of these ballot design topics.