The Double-Bubble Ballot

U.S. news agencies are reporting on the California ballots that ‘may have lost Obama the California primary.’ The argument is that he would have pulled in the ‘declined to state’ voters (those who have not registered as either Democrat or Republican), but that because of a human factors error with the ballot, those votes may not have been counted. (The inference is that these voters would have supported Obama.)

Succinctly, declined-to-state voters have to ask for a Democratic ballot. Then they must fill in a bubble at the top of the ballot, saying that they wanted to vote in the Democratic primary. Obviously, many users might not do this, as it seems a redudant code… the ballot they are holding is the Democratic ballot, so why indicate again that it was the ballot they requested? If you look at the ballot below, it says at the top to “select party in the box below.” Of course, there is only one option, which makes it not much of a selection.

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It’s likely this area of the ballot was inserted to produce some interesting statistical information (rather than a pure answer of who received the most votes.) If only declined-to-state voters filled the bubble, you could get a count of how many of those voters came out to vote compared to other years, how many chose to vote Democrat, and which candidate received most of their support. While interesting (I would like to know all of those things) it complicates the purpose of primary voting: to count the number of Americans who support a particular candidate.

Why I am not a conspiracy theorist: People with the best of intentions make critical human factors design errors, even errors that cost people their lives (see “Set Phasers on Stun.”) Sometimes, these errors are created by specific good intentions, as in the Florida hanging-chad fiasco.

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The reason the choices were staggard on each side of the ballot was to increase the font size, supposedly making the ballot more clear for older voters. This perceptual aid was trumped by the resulting cognitive confusions. These ballot designs may suffer from a lack of user testing, but not from an intentional ploy to keep declined-to-state voters from being counted or to get Pat Buchanan more votes.

Thus, let’s tackle the problem rather than using ‘double bubble’ for a slow news day. Why don’t we demand all ballots and voting machines be user tested? (Security is another issue, for another blog.) If you have an idea of what action to take, please comment so a future post may provide detailed instructions.