New VA Ballot Guidelines Seek to Reduce Voter Confusion

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The Virginia Department of Elections is moving to adopt new ballot guidelines after mismarked ballots became an issue in key races in last year’s elections. WTOP’s Max Smith (who, I should note, has become a terrific source of coverage on these issues in Virginia) has more:

Months after control of Virginia’s House of Delegates was decided by a disputed, mismarked ballot, the State Board of Elections will set new ballot requirements that include clearer instructions for voters.

Proposed changes to be adopted March 23 address “a need for improved clarity and additional examples” and “a need for improved usability of ballots for voters based on best practices and research,” a memo to the three-member board said.

Virginia would go from more general rules about what printed ballots should look like to two specific approved forms. One of the proposed forms would include voting instructions in the leftmost column on the front of a three-column ballot. The other secondary choice would place voting instructions across the top of a two-column ballot just beneath the header that lists the date and type of election.

Research from national elections groups, used as a reference for the new guidelines, finds voters are more likely to use the instructions when they are in the left column of a ballot than when the instructions are printed across the top.

“Voters perform best with clear instructions of how to communicate their choice,” the memo said.

State law already required some type of instructions, but those instructions could vary from one jurisdiction to another.

The draft guidelines recommend black ovals be provided for voters to fully fill in next to the candidates they support rather than boxes or arrows that can be filled in with checkmarks, such as the current ballots in Arlington and elsewhere. They also recommend accurate instructional illustrations that demonstrate how to vote correctly. [You can see graphics containing the suggestions at the article link – ed.]

“Help voters know what to do and where to go next,” the draft guidance said.

The instructions will still not ensure all voters mark their ballots properly. The mismarked Newport News ballot that tossed a one-vote recount win into a tie that ended up in a random drawing of names already included a number of the new best practices. The voter in that case — and other voters across the commonwealth in Nov. 7 races decided by dozens or hundreds of votes — filled in bubbles for multiple candidates, before leaving a slash through Democrat Shelly Simonds’ name.

A three-judge recount court determined that the voter intended to support Republican David Yancey, who then went on to win the random drawing in early January to give Republicans 51-49 control of the House of Delegates…

Include information that will prevent voters from making errors,” the draft guidelines instruct local general registrars and electoral boards.

Few voters realize that when they do make a mistake, they are entitled to request a new ballot from a poll worker and have their initial one discarded. The guidelines would recommend adding that information to the ballot, along with an explanation of how to write in a candidate for general elections (state law prohibits write-ins in primaries).

Other changes include fewer restrictions on how candidates can have their names listed on the ballot, an acknowledgment that the commonwealth no longer allows the general use of touch-screen voting machines, and tweaks to the fonts or font sizes to be used.

The State Board of Elections could also now more frequently change any abbreviations used for political parties next to the names of candidates for General Assembly, statewide and federal offices to prevent any confusion. For example, the board documents note abbreviations might be different if only one of the Green Party or Independent Green Party have candidates running than if both do.

Ballots for general elections would continue to have as many write-in spaces as there are seats being elected.

Improving ballot design has been a huge topic of interest of this program for years; we partnered with the Center for Civic Design on a variety of projects in this space – and now you can enroll in an election design course taught by national experts Dana Chisnell and Whitney Quesenbery that allows you to go hands-on with design concepts and apply them to ballots and other election materials. Election officials might think about elections all the time, but voters don’t; even experienced voters need guidance (or the opportunity to consult it) when it’s time to make their choice.

Kudos to Virginia for this effort – while it comes too late to head off last year’s problems and won’t necessarily prevent all errors (because not everyone reads or follows instructions) it’s better than simply hoping for the best on Election Day.

Stay tuned …

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