SWING VOTES?

Flawed bal­lot de­sign may be to blame for ques­tion­able vot­ing pat­terns

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Stephen Hobbs, Skyler Swisher and Aric Chokey

A flawed bal­lot de­sign may be to blame for Broward County vote dis­crep­an­cies in the state’s most high pro­file races, where thou­sands of vot­ers cast bal­lots that failed to reg­is­ter their choice in the hotly-con­tested — and still un­de­cided — race for U.S. Se­nate, a South Florida Sun Sen­tinel anal­y­sis of vot­ing pat­terns re­veals.

More than 24,900 Broward res­i­dents voted for Florida gover­nor but not for U.S. se­na­tor, a fig­ure far larger than the mar­gin sep­a­rat­ing the two se­nate can­di­dates, ac­cord­ing to county re­sults up­dated Thurs­day evening. The Sun Sen­tinel found sim­i­lar dis­crep­an­cies in other statewide races, where the vote tal­lies sug­gest that thou­sands of vot­ers made the un­likely choice to vote on lower-pro­file races and by­pass the Se­nate race — a mar­quee con­test and the first one on the bal­lot.

This un­usual pat­tern ap­pears in no other Florida county. In other Florida coun­ties, the tal­lies re­flect re­sults that would be ex­pected, with more vot­ers weigh­ing in on the Se­nate race than in statewide races of lesser stature.

The is­sue could be of crit­i­cal im­por­tance as Florida heads to­ward mul­ti­ple re­counts, with a num­ber of races de­cided by nar­row­est of mar­gins, in­clud­ing the Se­nate race be­tween Gov. Rick Scott and in­cum­bent Bill Nel­son. Repub­li­can Scott was lead­ing Demo­crat Nel­son by 15,079 votes as of Thurs­day evening. The race ap­peared to be headed to a man­ual

re­count.

Broward elec­tions of­fi­cials were still count­ing bal­lots Thurs­day and county Elec­tions Su­per­vi­sor Brenda Snipes said she hadn’t in­ves­ti­gated the dis­crep­ancy yet, but the Sun Sen­tinel found that Broward’s bal­lot failed to fol­low best de­sign prac­tices and may have con­fused vot­ers.

Coun­ties de­sign their own bal­lots, and Broward put the Se­nate race in the bot­tom left-hand cor­ner of the bal­lot, be­low the in­struc­tions. That vi­o­lates guide­lines out­lined in a 2007 re­port by the U.S. Elec­tion As­sis­tance Com­mis­sion, which said bal­lots with ver­ti­cal in­struc­tions, like Broward’s, “can­not share col­umn space with con­tests -- test vot­ers of­ten over­looked races lo­cated im­me­di­ately be­neath ver­ti­cal in­struc­tions.”

Whit­ney Que­sen­bery, a bal­lot ex­pert and co-di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Civic De­sign, which seeks to im­ple­ment best de­sign prac­tices for bal­lots, said Broward’s bal­lot de­sign could have caused some vot­ers to skip over the race.

“Peo­ple can and do make mis­takes based on de­sign,” she said.

At­tor­ney Marc Elias, who is rep­re­sent­ing Nel­son’s cam­paign, sug­gested Thurs­day that ma­chine count­ing — not vot­ers over­look­ing the race — may be the is­sue.

“I am pretty con­fi­dent what you are go­ing to see are mark­ings that were not picked up by the ma­chines or a cal­i­bra­tion is­sue that was not reg­is­ter­ing that part of the bal­lot,” he said.

If Elias is right, the re­count could de­liver many votes for Nel­son in Broward, a county flush with Democrats. But if the is­sue is vot­ers over­look­ing the race, Nel­son will likely be out of luck, ac­cord­ing to elec­tion ex­perts.

“We can only count what was cast,” Que­sen­bery said.

The largest dis­crep­an­cies be­tween the gover­nor and se­nate votes ap­pear in a group of precincts in south­ern Broward, specif­i­cally in the con­gres­sional dis­trict of U.S. Rep. Fred­er­ica Wil­son, the Sun Sen­tinel found. Wil­son did not ap­pear on the bal­lot be­cause she had al­ready wrapped up re-elec­tion af­ter win­ning the Demo­cratic pri­mary in Au­gust.

That meant that on bal­lots in Wil­son’s dis­trict, the Se­nate race was the only race be­neath the bal­lot in­struc­tions in the left-hand col­umn. On bal­lots in Broward’s other con­gres­sional dis­tricts, the Se­nate race was fol­lowed by a race for the U.S. House.

Here is a look at the specifics of the un­usual vote pat­terns in Broward, based on num­bers tal­lied as of Thurs­day evening:

Florida At­tor­ney Gen­eral: More than 13,900 bal­lots reg­is­tered a vote for at­tor­ney gen­eral but not for U.S. se­na­tor.

Florida Agri­cul­ture Com­mis­sioner: More than 8,700 bal­lots showed votes for agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner, but not se­na­tor.

Florida Chief Fi­nan­cial Of­fi­cer: More than 8,300 bal­lots reg­is­tered votes for CFO but not se­na­tor.

This wouldn’t be the first time a bal­lot blun­der up­ended re­sults in an im­por­tant Florida elec­tion. Florida has a long his­tory of bal­lot de­sign is­sues, in­clud­ing the 2000 but­ter­fly bal­lot in Palm Beach County that took cen­ter stage in the Bush vs Gore pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and the 2006 bal­lot lay­out in the Sara­sota con­gres­sional race barely won by Repub­li­can U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan.

If bal­lot de­sign is the prob­lem now, even af­ter the re­count, the Nel­son cam­paign may find few new votes in Broward.

“You can go back and check voter in­tent, but if it is a de­sign prob­lem and peo­ple didn’t see the race to be­gin with, there is noth­ing you can do about it,” Lawrence Nor­den, a lawyer fa­mil­iar with elec­tion law and deputy di­rec­tor of the Bren­nan Cen­ter’s Democ­racy Pro­gram.

“If this is the cause of lost votes, it is in­cred­i­bly frus­trat­ing that some­how the state hasn’t got­ten it’s act to­gether to make sure bal­lots are de­signed in a way that don’t cause lost votes. The de­sign was not op­ti­mal.”

CARLINE JEAN/SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SEN­TINEL

An em­ployee of the Broward County Su­per­vi­sor of Elec­tion’s of­fice in Lauder­hill counts bal­lots from the midterm elec­tion Thurs­day.

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