Democracy is a Design Problem (cont.): Bethlehem Ballots Create Confusion

[Screenshot image via bethlehemschools]

Bethlehem, NY is facing controversy after a redesigned ballot resulted in confusion about votes cast in a recent school board election. The Times-Union has more:

Meredith Moriarty, Christine Beck and Holly Dellenbaugh will be the new members of Bethlehem’s board of education.

But there’s a chance, albeit small, that could change.

The school board announced the three winners at their regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday, less than 24 hours after confusion over ballots threw the Tuesday night election into disarray and forced a manual recount of 888 votes.

The ballot itself [pictured above] featured two rows of eight squares each — one with the names of eight candidates and one with empty boxes for write-ins. Each square contains a bubble that can be filled in.

That layout appeared to create some uncertainty for voters, resulting in some odd ballots:

But a number of voters ­— including one school board member who admitted he revised his ballot after realizing he had goofed — were confused by the ballots, and filled in the bubble in the write-in box but listed no name. Others wrote in names but didn’t fill in bubbles.

“It was an easy mistake that people made,” said board member Matt Downey, who was almost one of the people who made the mistake.

That left district officials with an abnormally high number of write-in candidates, throwing the vote count into chaos Tuesday night and pushing the electoral decision into uncharted legal waters, with no apparent case law or precedent to inform how officials should proceed.

Eventually, the town counted the ballots using voter intent and reached a result, though a recount could still occur:

The fate of the eight candidates vying for three open seats ultimately hinged on this question: “Can the will of the voter be reasonably ascertained?”

In other words: Can officials clearly determine that the votes, which made up about 12 percent of the total, were obviously intended for one candidate or another?

The board said yes, with a majority of its members trusting the discretion of the recount and thus accepting the three new members.

Moriarty came in first with 1,232 votes; Beck in second with 1,088 and Dellenbaugh with 1,080. The fourth-place candidate received 1,043 votes.

But this may not yet be over: Candidates are able to petition the state education commissioner for a recount, a move that at least one board member encouraged as a way to legitimize the board’s composition moving forward.

It appears that at least part of the problem stemmed from the move to new optical scan ballots – though county officials note the problem only occurred in Bethlehem:

“The ballot designed by the county to meet standards of the new digital voting machines created some voter confusion,” said the district’s Chief Business and Financial Officer Judith Kehoe, who oversaw the election process, in a statement posted to the district website earlier Wednesday.

Perhaps the design was the problem, Albany County officials say, but a number of other districts around the state had similarly designed ballots without any confusion. Board of Elections Commissioner Rachel Bledi said Wednesday that the district seemed eager to deflect blame for the mass confusion.

“My issue is this sort of ballot was handed out across the county, in many other districts,” she said. “Why is it in the town of Bethlehem there was mass confusion? There’s more to the story than just a ballot design issue…”

“We do see this in primary elections, but not to this extent,” she said. “I don’t know what caused this to happen. It’s so bizarre.”

She wondered if candidates or interest groups might have given residents mistaken instructions about how to vote, or perhaps circulated an image of a ballot with the incorrect voting method.

“The instructions are right on the ballot, but if somebody didn’t read them, you might get confused,” she said.

Without seeing other ballots from the county, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly created the confusion- though the fact that there were eight write-in blocks with bubbles – as many blocks as there were candidates – was likely a contributing factor. It’s true that the instructions do specify which bubble to use to make a choice or how to cast a write-in, but they are tucked into the top-left corner and could have been overlooked by many voters. These are precisely the kinds of design challenges that my colleagues Whiteney Quesenbery and Dana Chisnell confront all the time in their Election Design course and at the Center for Civic Design. Their mantra is “democracy is a design problem” – and Bethlehem’s experience would seem to bear that out. I’ll be curious to see what, if any, changes the town makes going forward to address this issue. Stay tuned …

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