This Year’s Butterfly Ballot

October 31, 2008


   In Florida’s “butterfly ballot” debacle of 2000, voters in Palm Beach County were so confused by the odd layout that many appear to have voted for the wrong candidate by mistake. At the time, there was a lot of talk about improving ballot design. Eight years later there are still far too many badly done ballots. North Carolina may have the country’s worst. It is already causing confusion with early voters. And if the presidential race is close, it could change the outcome.

    Like a number of states, North Carolina allows its voters to choose a straight-party ticket. To do that, voters can mark one box and cast votes for all of the nominees of their preferred party. But North Carolina’s ballot has an unexpected twist. Even if a voter checks the straight-party box, he or she must vote separately for a presidential candidate.

    North Carolina’s ballot explains the need to check two boxes, and election officials make an effort to inform voters of the drill. But the ballot is still far too confusing.


This peculiar form of straight-ticket voting was adopted in the 1960s, to help the state’s Democrats keep getting elected, even as a growing number of voters began to choose Republicans for president. Not surprisingly, North Carolina has an unusually high rate of undervotes, ballots that do not record a vote for president. In the last two presidential elections, the rate has been about double the national average.

    Poor ballot design is a burden on all voters. Less-educated voters and the newly enrolled are even more likely to be confused and to end up not casting a vote for president.

    This year, North Carolina’s flawed ballot could again result in tens of thousands of votes being lost. That is particularly worrisome since polls indicate a very close presidential race in the state. And as we saw in 2000, a presidential election can be decided by a mere 537 votes.

    It is too late to change the ballot for this year’s election, so election officials must do everything they can to explain to voters how the state’s straight-ticket voting works. When the election is over, North Carolina needs to include the presidential race in its straight-ticket voting, or require voters to choose candidates one by one.

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