Thursday, December 8, 2011

Thousands of Bronxites' votes in the 2010 election did not count

In 2010, nearly 40 percent of the votes cast for governor were voided as 'overvotes' in two South Bronx election districts.

In 2010, New Yorkers voted on electronic, optical-scan voting machines for the first time. Voters went to their polling places on Election Day, filled out paper ballots and fed them into the brand-new optical scan machines.

But tens of thousands of their votes did not count. Specifically, about 20,000 voters in New York State did not have their votes for governor counted because the machines read their choices as “overvotes” — the invalid selection of more than one candidate. Even more votes were lost in other contests — 30,000 to 40,000 more. If this were a presidential year, with nearly twice the turnout, the Brennan Center expects that the number of votes lost because of overvoting would more than double, possibly resulting in more than 100,000 lost votes.

Astoundingly, there were seven different election districts with more than 30 ballots cast where 10 percent or more of the voters lost their votes for governor due to overvoting. Six of these election districts were in a single polling place in the Bronx (see image, below). The other was in the Morris Park neighborhood in the northeast Bronx.

Here's a closeup of the problematic area. All screenshots courtesy of the Brennan Center of Justice.
'Overvoting' means voting for more than one candidate in the same race (For example, trying to vote for both Andrew Cuomo and Jimmy McMillan for governor).

The lack of adequate overvote protections had a disproportionately negative impact on the state’s poorest communities, the Brennan Center said. Lost votes due to overvoting occurred far more frequently in areas with higher populations of low-income residents, people of color, and immigrants. Black and Hispanic voters were at least twice as likely to lose votes due to overvoting as non-Hispanic whites. The two Bronx election districts where over 35 percent of the votes cast for governor were voided as overvotes are heavily Hispanic and Black.

Here's the breakdown in the various problem districts:

To explain this onslaught of numbers, the worst election district, 023, had nearly 40 percent of votes cast for governor not count. The bottom row, 065 election district, was no success either, with 15 percent votes for governor not counting because of overvotes.

The authors of the report explained the issue to WNYC:

Norden, the program's interim director, said most people don't know the phrase "Over Voted Ballot" at the top means too many votes were cast for the same race -- invalidating their vote for that race.
The giant green 'Accept' button confuses voters
into thinking the ballot is A-OK when really,
an over voted ballot has been cast and the vote
for that race will not count.
And he said the big, green "accept" button at the bottom is misleading.
"Our concern was that a lot of people, not understanding what that message meant, would just go ahead press 'accept' -- green seems like a good thing, it seems like a way to get your vote to count. In fact, what ends up happening in those circumstances is that your vote doesn't count," he explained.
The good news is that the New York State Board of Elections has agreed to adopt a better overvote warning when a voting machine cannot discern voter intent, hopefully in time for the November 2012 election: such a warning will inform the voter of the problem in plain English (“you have filled in too many ovals”), and clearly explain the consequences of casting an overvote (“your vote will not count”).

Why this message can't also appear in Spanish is unclear, though I suppose it's still better than a giant green 'Accept' button. Voting is a miserable, time consuming experience for most people, so moving through the process as quickly as possible (especially if it's in your secondary language) explains the mistake of not catching your overvote.

This should significantly reduce the number of overvotes in 2012, officials said, but it will not eliminate the problem.

"There is more that our public officials, and especially our state legislators, could do," the report said. "In this report, we discuss how commonsense solutions, like requiring boards of elections to publish precinct-level election results, can improve detection and correction of machine-related problems. Critically, we also explore how better ballot design requirements can reduce overvotes."

Jump below for the full document from the Brennan Center.
Design Deficiencies and Lost Votes

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