We have all heard the prophecies of Election Day fiascos: long lines at the polls, voting machines that crash, malicious hackers corrupting electronic voting systems or the optical scanners used to count paper ballots. The list goes on. It also ignores one of the biggest threats to the election: voters mistakenly casting their ballots for candidates they did not intend to support. Unlike the other threats, voters can avoid this one.
Butterfly ballot redux? Maybe not. But the results of a multiyear, multistate study I conducted with a team of computer scientists, psychologists and political scientists demonstrate that enough voters could accidentally choose the wrong candidate to change the outcome of a close election. Our study, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, showed that even with the simplest vote - the vote for president - roughly 3 percent of all voters err in choosing. Most of the errors involve choosing a presidential candidate whose name is listed immediately before or after the candidate the voter intended to select. This results in a double whammy: Not only does the preferred presidential candidate fail to receive a vote, but that vote has a strong probability of going to the preferred candidate's major opponent.
Our study included a paper ballot/optical scan system, a touch screen system, a system with a dial and buttons, and systems with and without paper trails. These systems include those used in the Washington, D.C. region and nationally. The study found that things only get worse when voters move down the ballot, when voter fatigue might set in or when voters are asked to perform somewhat more complicated tasks, such as choosing more than one candidate for the same office, as they are frequently asked to do in judicial elections or school board contests.
Not all voting machines are the same. Voters casting ballots on standard touch screen systems, such as those used in Maryland, are likely to make somewhat fewer errors than those using paper ballot/optical scan systems or the dial-and-buttons system used in parts of D.C. and Northern Virginia. The exception is write-in votes. Common sense and the responses of the more than 1,500 voters participating in our study suggest that it should be easier to write in a candidate on a paper ballot, but almost 30 percent of all voters using the paper ballot to cast a write-in vote do so in vain - almost 10 times more than the number using any other type of voting system. The reason? They forget to fill in the oval (or complete the arrow) alerting the voting system that they cast a write-in vote.
Fortunately, there are things voters can do to ensure they get things right. The first thing is to bring a marked-up sample ballot to the polling place. This will enable them to quickly and accurately transfer the information from the sample ballot to the real thing, saving time and cutting down the likelihood of errors because of snap decisions. Voters using touch screen or other electronic voting systems should pay careful attention to the review screen. The screen will highlight any races or ballot questions where the voter has not made a selection, making it easy for those who accidentally forgot to register a choice to do so. Voters using these same systems can readily compare the screen with the sample ballot they brought with them.
Voters using paper ballot/optical scan systems will have to be more vigilant when checking their ballots. These systems don't have review pages that highlight missing votes. Some vote scanners have a small screen that alerts voters who did not make a selection in a specific race or who made more selections than is allowed in a given election. (It is impossible to make the latter error on electronic systems.) This screen can help voters catch some errors. The remedy for forgetting to make a selection is simple: just fill in the oval with the choice on your sample ballot. The remedy for a wrong selection is more demanding. The best way to correct a wrong vote choice is to discard the ballot and start over. Voters who cross out one choice and fill in the oval for another are likely to have that vote nullified because the scanner will treat them as two completed ovals. Voters who attempt to erase the incorrect choice and fill in another oval also risk having their vote nullified, depending on whether too much of the original mark is present. This is a risk no one should take.
Voters should take these simple precautionary steps in the voting booth. And if voting on paper and casting a write-in vote, be sure to fill in the oval, complete the arrow or do whatever is required. Otherwise, all of that neat penmanship goes for naught.
Paul S. Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship and a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, is coauthor of "Voting Technology: The Not-So-Simple Act of Casting a Ballot."