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Will ballot design affect presidential election in Florida? An expert takes a look

Two years after a flawed ballot design in Broward County led to more than 30,000 under-votes in a tight U.S. Senate race, once again thrusting Florida’s election system into the national spotlight, there are no “obvious problems” with the Nov. 3 ballot designs in Broward or in the state’s most populous counties, according to a ballot-design expert.

At the request of the Miami Herald, Whitney Quesenbery, the co-director for the Center for Civic Design, a nonprofit that researches best practices for ballot design, reviewed sample ballots for Florida’s 10 most populous counties to spot any issues with the display of the presidential race.

The ballots differ slightly, but each one features the presidential race clearly and prominently. None of the ballots follow recommendations for illustrated instructions, which would reduce the need for lengthy directions, but Quesenbery said most supervisor of elections offices did a good job shading each race to help the voter easily navigate the ballot.

These counties were part of the review: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Orange, Polk, Lee, Duval and Brevard.

In 2018, thousands of Broward voters skipped the Senate race between incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Rick Scott, who was then the governor, a debacle largely blamed on the placement of the race below the instructions.

Unlike two years ago, when the senate race and the contests for governor and agriculture commissioner went to recounts, there are no statewide races this November other than president. The only other item on the ballot that crosses county lines is whether to retain Florida Supreme Court Justice Oscar Muñiz.

“Ballot design has gotten better over the years, but even in the small sample of ballots, you can see that there is enough variation to possibly make a difference,” Quesenbery said in an email. “I reviewed only a small sample of ballots. And I don’t know all the circumstances — which ones are tight races, for example. But I don’t see any obvious problems besides the issues I flagged.”

In Broward, which now has a governor-appointed elections chief, Supervisor of Elections Peter Antonacci shared the ballot design for this year’s presidential election with candidates and political parties to prevent a repeat performance in November. Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections Wendy Link, who was also appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis following machine malfunctions in 2018, shared the design with the local parties as well.

“We did it voluntarily,” Broward elections spokesman Steve Vancore said in an email. “We did it because in past elections, as you are likely aware, there were issues with ballot design. We felt it was best to get as many eyes on the ballots as is reasonably possible.”

They are the only two elections offices that said they had voluntarily shared the ballot design with political parties. Some elections offices, like in Orange County, did share the designs pursuant to public records requests. The elections office in Miami-Dade County, which has been praised for its elections work, said it did not consult with any parties prior to publishing the sample ballots.

Quesenbery said it would “foster more faith in the election process” if every elections office shared their ballots prior to publication. Such a review would help avoid design mistakes and give the public a better understanding of the “constraints under which this work is done,” she said.

“Haven’t we all had the experience of sharing something we have written and having fresh eyes catch a typo?” she said. “A transparent review would foster more faith in the election process.”

Election Day in Florida, which often sees races decided by narrow margins, is always tense. And this year, with more than 5 million voters requesting mail-in ballots amid COVID-19 fears, there is a chance the presidential election results may not be known until days later if elections offices face a flood of 11th-hour ballots.

To avoid a repeat of the Broward under-vote fiasco, the Florida Legislature passed a law in 2019 requiring ballot instructions be placed across the top of the ballot or in the leftmost column if there are no races below the instructions.

Despite their best efforts, however, neither elections supervisors nor lawmakers can predict if a ballot design will be free from errors or complications.

Even the infamous butterfly ballots in Palm Beach County, which confused voters deciding the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, “looked fine” before voters put them in their holders and discovered the “alignment problem with candidates on both sides of the spine,” Quesenbery said.

“The big problems we have seen in recent years all include a combination of: a close election, where small mistakes have an out-sized impact on the results, a problem with the design that may only be evident in use, and a visual design or layout problem [that] is exacerbated by the unique contents of the ballot,” Quesenbery said.

The last line of defense against a bad ballot design is a perceptive voter, she said.

“Each voter should take the opportunity to check their ballot carefully, looking for any contests they may have skipped,” she said. The ballot scanners are programmed to notify voters if they marked too many selections in one contest, but not if they skipped a contest. So that careful final check is the best defense against a ballot design problem causing voters to mark their ballot in a way that does not reflect their intent.”

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©2020 Miami Herald

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