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99% Invisible: Butterfly Effects

On the January 29, 2016 edition of 99% Invisible.

When Americans woke up on November 8, 2000—the day after the presidential elections—it was unclear whether Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W. Bush had won. There had been anomalies in the polls in Florida, and there was uncertainty as to which candidate the state should award its electoral votes, which would decide the election.

As four counties in particular in Florida came under scrutiny, it became increasingly obvious that a significant part of the problem had been caused by bad ballot design.

The so-called butterfly ballots at the heart of the controversy featured two rows of names set to the left and right of a central spine. Voters cast their votes by punching out holes down the center, which corresponded to their choice of candidate on either side of the spine.

While the option for George W. Bush was clear (the first hole), the option for Al Gore (the third hole) was not as obvious to voters, many of whom assumed the second name on the left would correspond to the second hole.

Moreover, machines counting the votes were unable to read ballots with “hanging chads,” a byproduct of incompletely-punched holes.

Lifelong Democrats were appalled to discover they might have voted for a conservative Reform Party candidate, Patrick Buchanan (the choice on the butterfly ballot below Bush, but above Gore). Buchanan himself conceded his unusually high numbers in certain areas were likely due to ballot confusion.

There were many elements of the 2000 election in Florida that point blatant unfairness—namely, the disenfranchisement of at least 12,000 voters who should have been eligible to vote. The butterfly ballot, though, was probably more of a design fail.

Ballots are an essential component to a working democracy, yet they are rarely created (or even reviewed) by design professionals [...]