Butterfly Effects

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
To begin, there’s someone our producer, Sam Greenspan, would like you to meet.

Sam Greenspan:
“Can you say who you are and how you know me?”

Jean Greenspan:
“I’m your grandmother. My name is Jean Greenspan. I’m Sam Greenspan’s grandmother.”

Sam Greenspan:
Jean Greenspan is my father’s mother. I call her Grandma Jeanie. She grew up during the Great Depression and because her family got a lot of help from FDR and the new deal, Grandma Jeanie is a Democrat – always has been, always will be.

Sam Greenspan:
“Grandma. Have you ever voted for a Republican or anyone who wasn’t a Democrat?”

Jean Greenspan:
“No. No. No. Not at all. No. Never. Never. Never do that. Always vote for a Democrat.”

Sam Greenspan:
And so on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, in the year 2000, Grandma Jeanie hopped on her three-wheel bike and pedaled over to the community center in her retirement village and she did what she always does. She voted a straight democratic ticket. Or at least she thought she did.

Sam Greenspan:
“Grandma, can you tell me where you live?”

Jean Greenspan:
“Oh, now I live in Century Village. West Palm Beach in Florida.”

Sam Greenspan:
“And what county do you live in?”

Sam Greenspan:
“Palm Beach County.”

News Clip:
“An election in turmoil, a presidency in the balance, who will emerge the winner in the historic Florida recount?”

Board Member:
“I believe the people of Palm Beach County have entrusted us to voice their right to participate in their government. I move that this board conduct a manual recount of all the ballots for the presidential election for the year 2000.”

George W. Bush:
“The election was close, but tonight after a count and yet another manual recount, Secretary Cheney and I are honored and humbled to have won the state of Florida, which gives us the needed electoral votes to win the election.”

Roman Mars:
As a quick refresher, the 2000 presidential race between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore came down to contested votes in Florida and one of the four counties at the center of the controversy was Palm Beach County.

Sam Greenspan:
Voters were using paper ballots where you indicate your choice by punching out holes with a metal stick. Palm Beach County’s ballot, known as the butterfly ballot, had choices of candidates spread over two pages with the holes to punch out in between them. But some found the layout confusing.

Roman Mars:
Voters who wanted to cast their vote for George W. Bush had no problem. It was clear that the correct hold to punch was the very first one right at the top. But there was some ambiguity about which was the right hole to punch to indicate a vote for Al Gore. Was it the second one down right after Bush or was it the third one down?

Sam Greenspan:
Gore was actually the third one down.

Roman Mars:
The way the ballot was set up, some voters who believe they were voting for Al Gore actually cast a vote for Patrick Buchanan. Buchanan, being the extremely conservative reform party candidate.

Sam Greenspan:
And there was also a problem with the physical ballots themselves, namely the chads.

Roman Mars:
When you punch a hole in something, the chad is the little piece of paper or cardboard or whatever it is, that gets punched out. And in theory, it should be completely punched out, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Sometimes the chads hang on.

Sam Greenspan:
And in the case of the 2000 election, if the chad was still hanging on, the ballot counting machine couldn’t always read the ballot. And for the people who would eventually count them by hand, in the recount-

Erik Herron:
The auditors had to interpret the intent of the voter and these hanging chads became quite infamous as well because in re-tabulating the vote, you had to make assumptions about whether a hanging chad was a vote for a particular candidate or it was a mistake.

Sam Greenspan:
That’s Erik Herron.

Erik Herron:
My name is Erik Herron and I’m the Eberly Family Professor of Political Science at West Virginia University and I focus my research on elections, electoral systems.

Sam Greenspan:
And so because of this faulty ballot in Palm Beach County, my grandma Jeanie, a dyed in the wool New Deal Democrat from the Jewish tenements of New York City, might have accidentally endorsed a third-party candidate who embraces all the things that she is against.

Jean Greenspan:
And then when we were told I was really embarrassed. We felt cheated, we felt guilty. I felt guilty that I voted for the wrong person.

Sam Greenspan:
Her retirement community, Century Village, was actually called out by www.salon.com and other news outlets as polling unusually high for Pat Buchanan.

Erik Herron:
There is extensive research to show that the votes cast for Buchanan in Palm Beach County were extraordinarily high. They were anomalous in the region and in general, and the best explanation for the spike in support for Patrick Buchanan was the design of the ballot.

Roman Mars:
Even Pat Buchanan himself admitted that his high numbers were probably due to an error.

Sam Greenspan:
Now the butterfly ballot was only one small piece of the debacle that was the 2000 election in Florida. A lot of absentee ballots were counted incorrectly. There was a manual recount that was started and then stopped and later it would come out to the state of Florida wrongfully denied the right to vote to at least 12,000 people – a disproportionate number of whom were people of color. All of this in an election where the margin of victory was fewer than 600 votes.

Erik Herron:
There were a number of incidents in Florida in the 2000 elections that were politically charged and potentially motivated by partisan intent, but the design of the butterfly ballot is much more likely a case of malpractice than malice.

Roman Mars:
It was a classic design fail.

Erik Herron:
It’s a poorly designed ballot. It is a ballot that does not take into account the way that a voter would look at the ballot and use the particular technology in place at the time – punch card technology – to cast their vote.

Roman Mars:
The ballot is a designed object that is critically important for democracy. But in the United States, it’s almost never designed by an actual design professional.

Sam Greenspan:
And as such, our liberty is being infringed upon by the tyranny of bad design.

Roman Mars:
One of the oldest recorded instances of a vote is from the ancient Greek play, ‘The Eumenides’, by Aeschylus. In this story, Orestes his own trial for the murder of his mother.

Sam Greenspan:
Twelve jurors line up and take turns placing a stone in one urn to signify guilty or in another urn to signify not guilty. And this motif of the stone as a marker of a vote, it’s an image that stuck.

Erik Herron:
And the Greek word ‘psephos’ which means small stone or pebble, is the root of psephology, or the study of elections.

Sam Greenspan:
And as Eric Heron tells it, himself a psephologist, the whole stone in the urn set up was not too different than how elections in the United States were originally conducted.

Erik Herron:
So, in the early US elections, you will find voters casting a voice vote. They physically had to make their way to the polling place and announced their vote. And one of the things you do sacrifice is the privacy of your vote. Individuals know who you are voting for and what that can engender is pressure on voters to support one candidate or another.

Roman Mars:
And the polls were not calm places with orderly lines. You could be badgered and pressured into voting a certain way.

Erik Herron:
Early elections in the United States often featured liquor and violence and fraud. Voters would have to push or shove or be physical to express their right to vote.

Sam Greenspan:
In fact, elections could be so raucous that-

Erik Herron:
It served as an argument for some against women’s suffrage. Elections were deemed as inappropriate for women to attend.

Sam Greenspan:
Then in the late 1800s, election supervisors realized that having people vote by speaking their choices allowed was a terrible idea. The lack of privacy could lead to coercion. And those who did vote their conscience had no way to verify that their vote was being recorded accurately.

Roman Mars:
And this all led to the advent of the paper ballot, called a ticket. But unlike the ballots we have today, these were printed not by the government, but by political parties.

Erik Herron:
Political parties would print their own ballots that voters would take with them to the polling place. Now, these could be printed in newspapers, they could be printed by the parties themselves and distributed, and the voter would turn in that party ticket.

Sam Greenspan:
The party tickets would generally only have the candidates from that party on them. So if say you wanted mostly Republicans, you go get a Republican party ticket and then you cross out the candidates that you don’t want and then either write in or literally cut and paste pieces of paper with your candidates’ names onto that ticket.

Erik Herron:
And this is the origin of the term to cast a split ticket or a straight ticket.

Roman Mars:
But this system also had problems. For one, parties could make tickets that looked like those of their opponents, but actually had their own candidates listed, duping voters into voting for the wrong party.

Sam Greenspan:
Nonstandard ballots also created other opportunities for shenanigans like racketeering schemes, which facilitated a whole black market of buying and selling votes. And so the party ticket system wasn’t creating fair elections either.

Erik Herron:
So in the late 19th century, there is an innovation that is imported from abroad. It’s called the Australian ballot and the Australian ballot is government-printed ballot that is distributed to voters who come to a polling place and they cast their ballot in private.

Sam Greenspan:
And this Australian ballot system was a game-changer.

Roman Mars:
First of all, we started treating ballots more like currency.

Erik Herron:
Administrators have to store them securely, they have to store them safely, they have to maintain a clear chain of custody over them to maintain the integrity of the election process. They’re often printed on special paper to undermine counterfeiting or efforts to commit fraud.

Sam Greenspan:
And with the Australian ballot as a point of departure, polling places in the US began to see new machines that interfaced with the official government printed ballots. There were machines where you pull levers or use a metal rod to punch holes out of an optical scan ballot-

Roman Mars:
Like we saw with the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County, Florida in the 2000 election.

Sam Greenspan:
Today, there is tremendous variation in how each County conducts its elections. If you move across the County line, your polling place could use an entirely different balloting system. Because here’s the really crazy thing about elections in the US, unlike much of Western Europe, Canada and Australia, South Africa, India, and most other industrialized democracies, the US runs its elections at a hyper-local level.

Erik Herron:
Because the US decentralizes this whole process, you have a patchwork of election procedures all across the country and it can vary at the county level or even within some counties, as to how ballots are counted and processed.

Sam Greenspan:
We do this because that’s what the constitution tells us to do. It says that states shall conduct elections and the states generally delegate elections down to municipal governments.

Roman Mars:
Partly because voters have so many things to vote for that each municipal government requires its own ballot.

Erik Herron:
We vote for so many public officials. Everything from president to drain commissioner can be on a ballot.

Sam Greenspan:
Yeah. In Michigan, I grew up in Michigan, you can vote for County Drain Commissioner.

Roman Mars:
And so, given that each county is responsible for running its own elections, every county is on their own. They could hire a designer to make the ballots. They could not hire a designer to make the balance. It all depends on what each election’s official wants to do.

Sam Greenspan:
And that, more than malicious intent, may be how Grandma Jeanie and her ilk voted for the wrong guy in 2000.

Dana Chisnell:
Exactly. Pat Buchanan is a religious fundamentalist kind of guy. Not the sort of person that a bunch of Jewish grannies are going to be voting for. If you had tested out this ballot in a pilot test or run what we call a usability test, even with just a few people, this issue would have surfaced pretty quickly.

Sam Greenspan:
That’s Dana Chisnell. She’s a user experience designer.

Dana Chisnell:
And I do applied research about design in voting in elections.

Roman Mars:
Dana, along with her colleague Whitney Quesenbery with the Center for Civic Design, have made it their mission to bring design theory and practice to elections.

Dana Chisnell:
In election administration, usability testing doesn’t get done and pilot testing on these kinds of designs doesn’t get done.

Sam Greenspan:
So, Dana co-authored a set of field guides to ensure voter intent.

Roman Mars:
Design manuals for elections officials.

Sam Greenspan:
And the very first one in the series was how to design usable ballot.

Dana Chisnell:
So one of our recommendations is to use lowercase letters, use mixed case.

Roman Mars:
Mixed case print is just easier to read than all caps. This has actually been proven in studies.

Dana Chisnell:
We also say avoid centered type. Centered type is for wedding invitations and wine labels. It really doesn’t belong on a form, especially one like this.

Sam Greenspan:
Other recommendations include using big enough type.

Dana Chisnell:
In New York, in 2012 I think, they used six-point type on their ballots.

Sam Greenspan:
It’s not uncommon to find magnifying glasses in New York voting booths.

Roman Mars:
The Center for Civic Design also recommends using one sans serif font.

Dana Chisnell:
If you look at some of these ballots, they look like ransom notes. There are lots of different type families that are used. The whole thing is just basically screaming at you and we can calm all that down quite a bit by just going with one sans serif font.

Sam Greenspan:
The suggestions in the guidebooks for how to design a good ballot are akin to designing a good anything.

Dana Chisnell:
When designers get ahold of these things, they’re like…, “This is design 101.” But election officials don’t know this.

Sam Greenspan:
And election officials, unlike normal clients, often have to uphold legislation requiring them to use bad design.

Dana Chisnell:
If you go look at election code in practically every state thing, design of the ballot is legislated. What the typeface is, what size it should be, what the grid is.

Sam Greenspan:
It’s like bad design is legislated.

Dana Chisnell:
Oh yeah, almost exclusively bad design.

Roman Mars:
So, not only do election officials have to apply better design principle to their ballot making, they also need to change laws.

Sam Greenspan:
But one thing that might solve ballots for good is standardizing them. It’s actually a project which Dana Chisnell and the Center for Civic Design are also working on. They’ve developed a prototype called ‘the anywhere ballot.’ It’s a touchscreen system where you can resize text, adjust contrast, navigate easily, verify that you voted for who you meant to vote for. And it’s open-source, so any elections official can use it. Though, Dana is quick to admit that it probably won’t eliminate all forms of unfairness.

Dana Chisnell:
Oh, well, something always goes wrong. I just hope that it will not be a major design disaster. The election official’s prayer is, “May the margins be wide.”

Roman Mars:
May the margins be wide, and the odds ever in your favor.

Credits

Production

Producer Sam Greenspan spoke with Jean Greenspan, his grandmother and a lifelong Democrat living in the contested county of Palm Beach, Florida; Erik Herron, the Eberly Family professor of political science at West Virginia University; and user experience designer Dana Chisnell of the Center for Civic Design.

  1. johnnyL

    Listened to this episode and afterward took the time to look at the butterfly ballot in question.I strongly disagree with the premise of the podcast that the ballot is misleading. I found it to be very self-explanatory as to how to cast a vote for Gore or anyone else.

    1. 99pi

      Most people did cast the votes they wanted, but the anomalous number that didn’t has to have a cause. If not confusing design, then what?

    2. Sure thing

      I’m sure the fact that you listened to a 20 minute podcast about the design of the ballot right before looking at it had no effect on how you viewed it.

  2. Excellent podcast. It was chilling to learn that poor design, the absence of any design thinking, or legislated bad design could literally affect democracy and leadership of the most influential nation in the world. Kudos to the Center for Civic Design for making their design Field Guides available to the public. http://civicdesign.org/fieldguides/

  3. Omnigeek

    What a load of crap. The essential problem in West Palm Beach was failure to read the instructions. That includes the “dimpled chad” malarkey bandied about by Gore’s team which they were trying to use to manufacture votes. The instructions from Florida CLEARLY said to look and see that the hole was punched through. Even on the so-called butterfly ballot, there are ARROWS — nice big visible arrows — pointing to the place to punch your hole.

    The claim about disenfranchisement was similar hogwash. The real attempt at disenfranchisement that the Democrats and media don’t want to talk about was Gore’s attempt to throw out military absentee votes in Florida. Those were real actual ballots from people serving their country but Gore didn’t want them counted because his team assumed they would lean toward Bush (why his team assumed active duty military would lean toward Bush after 8 years of Clinton/Gore is another topic that doesn’t seem to fit the story the media wants to tell).

  4. Trevor M

    Well, it’s nice to know you picked up one thing from us in Australia. Although you then kind of mucked it up.

    Now you could try importing some other things, like electoral commissions to draw boundaries instead of the horrendous gerrymandering that goes on.

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