Voter Error or Ineffective Ballot?

By Paul S. Hernson

Studies of ballots have traditionally focused on roll-off, candidate order, and partisan advantage. This study is among the first to assess the impact of ballots on individual-level voter errors. We develop new hypotheses by bringing together theoretical insights from usability research and political science about the effects of ballots with and without a straight-party voting option.


By comparing voters’ intentions to the votes they cast, we are able to create two new measures of voter errors: votes unintentionally cast for the wrong candidate and unintentional undervotes.


Voters generally make fewer errors of both types when using a standard office-bloc ballot than when using an office-bloc ballot with a straight-party option, with the number of wrong-candidate errors substantially exceeding the number of unintentional undervotes. Voters’ background characteristics have a significant impact on their ability to vote without error. Our results offer a new perspective for evaluating the use of the straight-party option. The findings also have implications for public policy beyond their ballot-specific results. The relatively high incidence of wrong-candidate errors among older, less educated, and, evidently, among black voters who use a ballot with a straight-party option has repercussions for civil rights and voter education. They demonstrate that although perhaps not intended, ballot design—like voter identification and registration laws, the allocation of voting equipment, and the financing of campaigns—can increase the political disadvantages of traditionally underrepresented groups.


Online Appendix Figure 2. Format of a Standard Office-Bloc Ballot 
AJPS_Hernson_Fig2_Standard Office-Bloc Ballot

Online Appendix Figure A3. Format of an Office-Bloc Ballot with a Straight-Party Option



About the Authors: Paul S. Herrnson is the Executive Director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut. His article “The Impact of Ballot Type on Voter Errors”, coauthored by Michael J. Hanmer at the University of Maryland and Richard G. Niemi at the University of Rochester, appeared in the July 2012 issue of the American Journal of Political Science. This research was supported in part by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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