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What are some examples of unintentionally confusing ballot designs used in relatively recent elections (say, 1980 onwards)? Examples from non-american countries are fine if accompanied by an English translation.

Note: I'm not looking for stuff like historically used literacy tests - the key word is unintentional.

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    Whether something is confusing or not is subjective. How do you define whether a ballot design is confusing enough? We usually only hear about things like this when something goes wrong in a serious way
    – divibisan
    Jun 17 at 17:34
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    'Examples from non-American countries are fine if accompanied by an English translation' --- so you would like an English translation for a UK or Australian ballot if it fits the bill but a Brazilian or Argentinian one is fine?
    – Jan
    Jun 18 at 12:06
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    I think this question can't be answered, because anyone who intentionally creates confusing ballot designs will deny it. So if they are convicted (beyond reasonable doubt) of intentionally doing it, then we will know it was intentional in the end. But for the unintentional cases we will never know whether it really was unintentional unless maybe the effect was to the detriment of the group responsible for the design.
    – Nobody
    Jun 18 at 13:38
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    Not posting as an answer because I don't know how "intentional" it is, but I've seen ballot questions worded in such a way that you have no idea what "Yes" or "No" actually means. Something along the lines of "This bill shall prevent congress from passing a bill blocking the creation of a commission to consider banning the enacting of regulations stopping the use of [whatever]". So even if I know how I feel about [whatever], there's so many double, triple, quadruple etc. negatives in that sentence you need a law degree to know whether a "Yes" vote is for [whatever] or against it. Jun 18 at 14:06
  • @DarrelHoffman Either that, or a STEM background, a pen and a piece of paper - it's basically like simplyfing a string of NOTs to either no NOT or a single one. I think your example is confusing enough to the average person that you could presume lack of intent if you wanted to and post it as an answer.
    – Nobody
    Jun 20 at 15:39
54

The Butterfly Ballot

2000 Presidential Election in Palm Beach, Florida

In the 2000 election, Palm Beach County was using a hole-punch voting machine with a single column of holes. Hole-punch ballots are inherently error-prone in multiple ways, but this was compounded by a layout design error.

Most offices had 2-5 candidates; the names could all fit on one side of the punch with lots of space between holes. However, the Presidential election requires listing both the candidate & their Vice President running-mate, and furthermore 10 parties qualified for the ballot.

Confusion over Palm Beach County ballot. Although the Democrats are listed second on the left, they are the third hole on the ballot. Punching the second hole casts a vote for Buchanan.

The local Board of Elections handled this by alternating entries on either side of the hole punch, with a design compared to butterfly wings. The first six parties were staggered down the left side using the odd-numbered holes. The right side of the ballot held the remaining tickets (and a write-in space) and aligned with the even-numbered holes.

  1. Bush (1st ticket on the left)
  2. Buchanan (1st on the right)
  3. Gore (2nd on the left)

etc.

Compared to other parts of Florida, a highly disproportionate number of Palm Beach ballots were either cast for Buchanan, or disqualified for over-voting both Buchanan & Gore. Academic studies suggest that about 2000 Gore supporters miscast their vote for Buchanan, and even more over-voted.

How important was this mistake? Well, Bush's final margin of victory in Florida was only 537 votes. An additional 2000+ votes in Gore's favor would have easily tipped Florida, and due to USA's unusual "Electoral College" system, would also tip the nationwide result.

BTW, the same disproportionate error had occurred in the 1996 election, costing a similar number of votes for Bob Dole, but that election wasn't close so it went mostly ignored until after 2000.

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    And then there was the whole kerfuffle about incompletely-punched "chads" (hanging, swinging, or pregnant). In response, lots of jurisdictions replaced their punched-card ballots with electronic voting machines.
    – dan04
    Jun 18 at 1:11
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    Chads were a matter of the ballot holder getting jammed up, as I recall--I'm not sure I'd call chads a flaw of "confusing ballot design" in nearly the way that the alternating layout confused voters.
    – nitsua60
    Jun 18 at 2:12
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    @nitsua60 it's hard to prove how much of an issue it was, but there were reports of older voters failing to realize they didn't fully punch the ballot. I guess it would be more of an example of bad ballot design, given FL has a large elderly population.
    – eps
    Jun 18 at 3:30
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    "Unintentional" Jun 18 at 12:04
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    @dan04: And electronic voting machines have even more problems than the butterfly ballots. Sigh... Jun 18 at 12:05
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In the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, which operates under the Additional Members System (AMS), the ballots for the regional and constituency votes were combined onto one piece of paper, as below. This marked a change from the previous elections in 2003, where the ballots were split onto separate pieces of paper.

enter image description here

Many voters were confused by this new arrangement and either ignored one side of the ballot paper, used two votes on each ballot, or both votes on one ballot or similar. The elections also took place in conjunction with the Scottish local elections, which switched to Single Transferable Vote (STV) that year - meaning voters had to number candidates in order of preference. Although this took place on a separate ballot paper, some voters tried to number candidates in order of preference on the parliamentary ballot as well. The Electoral Commission produced an independent review into the elections which was published in October of 2007. The images in this answer are borrowed from said review.

enter image description here

There were a large proportion of rejected ballot papers - with roughly 3% of the regional ballots and 4% of the constituency ballots being rejected nationwide, and in some constituencies a rejection rate of over 10%. A breakdown of the reasons for rejecting ballots is shown above.

In particular, in two regions, Glasgow and Lothians, there were a large number of candidates for the regional ballot, which meant a redesigned ballot paper was used to avoid changing the size of paper. This redesign removed the directional arrows and had abbreviated instructions at the top of the paper, which the Electoral Commission's review found may have contributed to that area's high rejection rate - although it also proposed that the high level of social deprivation could also go some way to explaining this incongruence.

enter image description here

The review recommended that in the future, the regional and constituency ballot papers should be separated, and there should be a "greater focus on contingency plans to ensure the number of political parties and candidates can be accommodated".

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    Got to hand it to the commission, to use a graphic which at first glance implies all ballots had problems in a report about poorly presenting information is a pretty good effort.
    – Jontia
    Jun 17 at 20:48
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    See also the 2021 London Mayoral election, which apparently had a 4.3% rejection rate. The photo in the linked article shows a ballot this is as potentially confusing as the ones in this answer! Jun 18 at 8:51
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    @EricDuminil I'll bet the Animal Party did that on purpose - it's like those companies that put a bunch of A's in the beginning of their name just so they'll wind up on top of alphabetical listings in the phone book. They know some people just don't like to read, so candidates at the top of the list receive more votes in general. Jun 18 at 19:49
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    @DarrelHoffman the commission raised that point with regard to the Scottish ballot as well - the SNP used the slogan "Alex Salmond for First Minister" and as a result appeared at the top of all but one regional ballot.
    – CDJB
    Jun 18 at 19:55
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    @CDJB: They couldn't find an "Aaden" or "Aaron" for First Minister, just to be sure? Jun 19 at 9:47
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The Brennan Center for Justice has done some work on this exact question. Their full article can be found here, but I'll list a few of the examples they've gathered.

  • In 2018, Broward County, Florida printed a ballot question at the bottom of a column that consisted mostly of instructions in multiple languages. The senate race (which was one of the affected questions) received 3.5% fewer votes than the gubernatorial race, a disparity that did not occur in other counties. Some voters may have missed the question when skipping past the instructions.questions below instructions
  • In 2016, some California counties split a single race across multiple columns because of the large number of candidates. More ballots were rejected in those counties due to multiple votes than in counties that fit the same race into a single column.split across columns
  • In 2018, in Georgia, some electronic ballots showed multiple races on a single screen. Noticeably fewer votes were cast for lieutenant governor than for governor or secretary of state.multiple races on screen
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  • This is a great answer with a great reference. TBH I'd pick it over mine.
    – Foo Bar
    Jun 20 at 0:56

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