Poor Design Leads to Lost Votes

12/07/2011
The Brennan Center for Justice

The Brennan Center released a report this week detailing the tens of thousands of votes that were lost in New York because voting machines read their choices as “overvotes” – the invalid selections of more than the allowable number of candidates. Instead of returning the ballot, as is done in many other jurisdictions, the ballots were retained and the machine displayed a screen message using complex election jargon that gave voters misleading cues about their options. In the 2010 election, this confusing message led to as many as 20,000 lost votes in the governor’s contest alone and as many as 60,000 lost votes across all contests. The Times, Daily News, WNYC, and Politico have all done a great job covering the story.

The Brennan Center and others warned state election officials about the potential problems that would arise due to this confusing message. Represented by the Brennan Center, the NAACP New York State Conference, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, and several individual plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the New York State and New York City Boards of Elections in June of 2010 over the discriminatory impact on minority voters.

Our new study confirms that people of color were disproportionately likely to lose their vote. One percent of black and Hispanic voters in New York City did not have their votes for governor counted. In two predominantly Hispanic election districts in the South Bronx, nearly 40% of all votes were not counted in 2010; despite our repeated requests for an investigation into the overvotes in the South Bronx, we are not aware that one has been conducted. Our report also details problems with ballot design, finding that voters were more likely to cast an overvote in a race where candidates for the same office were displayed across two rows of the ballot (such as in the governor’s contest and in Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s U.S. Senate contest).We estimate that if no revisions are made to the overvote message, over 100,000 votes in New York could be lost in the 2012 election, when turnout will be much higher.

Fortunately, as detailed in the report, the State Board of Elections has agreed to adopt a better overvote warning in time for the 2012 election. But more steps can and should be taken to prevent lost votes. Election officials should make election results available by precinct; those results should report the number of overvotes in each contest on the ballot. When problems are discovered, election officials should be empowered required to investigate the reasons for high overvote rates. Ballots should be treated as public records to allow members of the public and voting experts to determine if ballots were in fact overvoted or simply recorded as overvotes because of a machine error. And states should reexamine their ballot design requirements and provide election administration officials with the guidance and flexibility they need to create voter-friendly ballots.

The recommendations are not specific to New York and can serve as models for jurisdictions across the nation to ensure that votes are counted as they were intended to be cast. The new report is available through the Brennan Center’s website.