How to Make Sure You Don’t Screw Up Your Ballot

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A surprising number of elderly Jews in Florida voted for Pat Buchanan.Photo: Bruce Weaver/AFP/Getty Images

As a species, humans tend to be easily distractible, confused, and prone to neglecting important details. Voting is a particularly important and depressing example. In an interesting paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science that isn’t online yet, Philip Kortum and Michael Byrne, both researchers at Rice University, briefly sketch out all the ways people can screw up in the voting booth and how to make voting a bit better and clearer.

The most famous example of a ballot blunder, of course, involves the so-called butterfly ballot above. In Palm Beach County in 2000, a bunch of people accidentally voted for Pat Buchanan rather than Al Gore, likely tipping the election to George W. Bush. Whoops! As Kortum and Byrne explain, people make all sorts of other mistakes when voting, all the time — they undervote, failing to hit the confirmation button that actually causes their votes to be processed by an electronic machine, they overvote, picking too many candidates in a given section and having that section not count as a result, and so on. To the extent we have research about these sorts of mistakes, Kortum and Byrne write, they seem to occur rather frequently.

Which is weird, when you think about it. Why would you go to the trouble of voting, but then do such a careless job of it? But as the authors explain, “almost a quarter of adults in the United States read below the fifth-grade level,” which means that confusingly written instructions have the potential to mislead a lot of people.

But it isn’t just about folks who don’t have great reading-comprehension skills. There are just a lot of ways for human to err when processing information — especially, the authors explain, when they’re doing so in the context of a new or unfamiliar situation like voting. It doesn’t help that election laws are set up in a way that grants a huge amount of power, ballot-design-wise, to local-level officials. Not surprisingly, these are often folks who don’t have much experience with psychology or design. That’s why Kortum and Byrne are calling on members of their field to take on a more active role in designing and evaluating ballots.

In the meantime, there are a few things you can do when you go to vote to ensure you don’t muck it up — and these are my suggestions, not from the paper. Perhaps most important, double- and triple-check your ballot before casting it. This sounds obvious now, with voting a week away for those without the option to do it early, but there’s a decent chance you will be voting at a time when you are tired, hungry, or otherwise lacking in attention span. As filled to the brim as you may be with civic pride when you get into line, there’s a chance that by the time you pull the curtain closed behind you, all you’ll be able to think about is how eager you are to get this voting thing out of the way and go find lunch.

Along those same lines, Kortum and Byrne point out that a lot of ballot instructions are terribly written. If you encounter such instructions, definitely find someone working at the polling place to ask about them. Again, this sounds simple now, but you will feel all sorts of social pressure not to do this; you will feel like you are holding up the line, or that you will look stupid to your fellow democracy-fans. Don’t let that stop you: Arrive at the polling place committed to making sure you fully understand the instructions before you cast your votes. It’s too important to let a little embarrassment get in the way.

Finally, if you’re voting on an electronic machine, make sure you don’t walk away until something on the screen makes it explicitly clear the machine has actually counted your votes. If there’s any ambiguity about this, again, just ask someone.

Again, the whole problem here is the conflict between present-you and future-you. All these suggestions sound obvious now, but if you’re at a hectic polling place or stressed out about where you have to be afterward, it will be surprisingly easy to slip up. Make a checklist and actually print it out if you think it’ll help, but, either way, don’t head out to vote without a plan for making sure you’re casting the right ballots for the right people.