Guest Blog: Martha Kropf, “Ballots and Voter Errors”

Policymakers and political scientists alike should pay attention to Herrnson, Hanmer and Niemi’s forthcoming article, as tagged by Mike Alvarez. The advantage of this study is that they have analyzed the individual’s interaction with the ballot via the experimental research design similar to that marshalled in their book Voting Equipment: The Not-So-Simple Act of Casting a Ballot (Brookings, 2008).

In short, they find that voters cast fewer unintentional undervotes in partisan races using a straight party option. Yet, in non-partisan race, voters make as many or more “errors of omission”. Particularly affected? Less educated and elderly voters.

Herrnson, Hanmer and Niemi’s article makes an important point: “… the ballot is the means through which voters register their intentions, and it is the dominant feature voters observe once they begin the voting process. Symbolically, it is more meaningful. As Beard pointed out a century ago: “The point of contact between the average voter and his government is the ballot . . . ” (1909, 590).

This work pairs nicely with presently-existing work, such as my recently published book with David C. Kimball, Helping America Vote: The Limits of Election Reform (Routledge, 2012). Using nationwide, aggregated data, we are able to show that residual votes are higher on ballot measures (non-partisan races) in states with the straight-party ticket. The straight party feature tends to reduce the probability of residual votes on partisan contests. However, the straight party feature is one of the more politically contentious ballot features! Often ignored by policymakers are features such as a connect-the-arrow on an optical scan ballot, which we show is responsible for a variety of ballot errors, especially overvotes (see Chapter 5 entitled, “We Mostly Eliminated the Butterfly Ballot: Isn’t That Enough?”). Overall, we provide empirical evidence that graphic design and usability research can guide us to make great improvements in ballot design.

One theme of Helping America Vote is that our country focused rather narrowly on voting equipment itself and its security over the past 12 or so years. Somewhat ignored was ballot design and usability. Our book shows the consequences for election reform when we make incremental reforms that focus on relatively small parts of the whole process. Together, with Herrnson, Hanmer and Niemi, our research encourages scholars and policymakers alike to think the act of voting as occurring in a system. A more broad view of the system is likely to improve both access and integrity.

However, I would be amiss if I did not stress for blog readers how important I think the very publication in one of our field’s top journals is. Rather than being dismissed as “not really political science”, I think this publication symbolizes the recognition that usability theory (and other interdisciplinary theory as well) as notable and important effects upon political behavior. Furthermore, ballot design is one of the many institutions that affect political outcomes.

About the author:  Martha Kropf is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at UNC Charlotte.  With David C. Kimball, she wrote a recently-published book, Helping America Vote:  The Limits of Election Reform (Routledge).