Voting by Design

When a single ballot insists it is actually five ballots, who could blame a voter for being confused?


A. Kam Napier
The general election falls early in the month, but before elections slip from our minds entirely, I'm still mulling over what happened in Hawai'i's primary election. Nearly 10,000 ballots were invalidated because voters selected candidates from more than one party, which they weren't supposed to do. Hawai'i has a single-party primary.

Press accounts described this as "human error." So did the state office of elections, which said it would review its voting instructions and how it trains the precinct officials who give those instructions. But what if this is not a case of "human error" at all? What if it's a case of a confusing ballot design?

I'm on this design bent because I recently read The Design of Everyday Things, by cognitive scientist Donald A. Norman, who studies how people perform complicated activities (2002, Basic Books). Norman focuses on the frustrating devices all around us-VCRs, car stereos, the phone at your office with eight zillion buttons you can never figure out. People fail to use these things correctly, he insists, because these objects do a poor job of explaining themselves. "Moreover, whenever people made errors using these ill-constructed devices, they blamed themselves," writes Norman. "Serious accidents are frequently blamed on 'human error.' Yet careful analysis of such situations shows that the design or installation of the equipment has contributed significantly to the problem."

This pretty much describes what happened in Hawai'i's primary election. A ballot is a kind of complicated device, and this year, almost 10,000 people filled them out erroneously.

I can see why. In my district, the front of my "Official Primary Ballot Card" featured four colored boxes, Nonpartisan, Libertarian, Republican and Democratic. Each of these boxes was, in turn, labeled a "ballot." The back was printed with another "ballot," this one labeled, "Special Nonpartisan Offices Ballot."

Illustration: Michael Austin

We're talking about a single piece of paper that insists it is actually five different pieces of paper, and we are supposed to keep track of which ballot is which when the instructions tell us to "vote within one ballot only."

If I selected one Republican, one Democrat and one Libertarian, wouldn't I have voted "within one ballot only?" After all, they are all on the same piece of paper, itself labeled a "ballot."

Well, no. That's not allowed. But that's the mistake nearly 10,000 voters made.

Perhaps the instructions should read "vote within one party only," a single word change that could clear up a lot of confusion. (Hey, I don't just criticize-I wanna help!)

Want proof that the problem rests in the design? Think back to when we had punch-card ballots, last used in the 1996 election. Back then, each party ballot literally was a separate card. You picked one, and only one, before you went into the booth. In the punch-card era, the average ballot invalidation rate was 0.5 percent. Since we've adopted the all-parties-on-the-ballot design, the average invalidation rate has been 2.88 percent.

Fortunately, this isn't hanging-chad bad. More than 97 percent of voters filled out the single-party primary ballot correctly. It just bugs me that we used to nail it 99.5 percent of the time.

However, while the ballot design is fixable, it can only get so simple as long as Hawai'i insists on running single-party primaries. There's nothing sacred about this format. Our single-party primary was created in the 1978 ConCon and was first used in the 1980 elections. We should consider dumping it.

I think the "error" made by nearly 10,000 voting humans tells us something very important: When handed a sheet of paper with all the candidates from all the parties set before us, we want to vote across party lines. It's only natural. People vote for people, not parties. We'd be a far less polarized community if elections encouraged that kind of choice, rather than enforcing party loyalty.

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