Palm Beach Ballot
Palm Beach Ballot: Expert Analysis of Visual Attributes
By Don Dillman
Professor of Government and Public Policy
Washington State University in Pullman, Washington
November 9, 2000
Statement by Don A. Dillman on Palm Beach County Florida Ballot
Originally circulated to AAPORNET*
Subsequently distributed by Red Rock Eater News Service
Republished by permission of the author
Several people have asked for my opinion on whether the format of
the November 7, 2000, general election ballot in Palm Beach County,
Florida, resulted in more people voting for Buchanan that had intended
to do so. This statement is in response to those requests.
I cannot say with certainty whether the format of this ballot affected
a certain number of people who thus voted by mistake for Pat Buchanan,
while intending to vote for another candidate. That would require
knowledge of what specific people did in the voting booth Tuesday,
which I don't have. However, based on my experiences and past
research concerning how the visual format of questionnaires affects
respondents to surveys, I believe it is likely that certain visual
features of the ballot resulted in some individuals who wished to vote
for Gore inadvertently punching the second hole in the column, thus
resulting in a vote for Buchanan. These visual attributes may also
have resulted in double punches as people attempted to correct their
error. However, I do not think that voters who intended to vote for
Bush were similarly affected.
I believe this outcome occurred because of the joint effects of several undesirable features of the Palm Beach County ballot, rather than a single attribute. These factors include:
- the listing of some candidates for President on the left-hand page of the ballot, while others were listed in a separate group on the right-hand page;
- use of a single column of circles between the pages to register one's vote, regardless of which page contained the candidate's name;
- the lack of familiarity some people may have had with how to answer a punch ballot printed in this format;
- the likelihood that most people knew which candidate they wanted to vote for prior to seeing any of the choices on the ballot;
- the location of the presidential choices on the first pages of the ballot; and
- the visual process people typically follow when registering preferences on a survey questionnaire or election ballot when it is unnecessary to read all choices
- names of presidential candidates, for example)
before registering one's vote.
In order to mark their ballot, it was necessary for people to insert their paper ballot underneath the booklet that showed the ballot choices. They were then required to use a stick-pin answering device to punch through a circle on the ballot to make a hole in the paper ballot.
When people open and/or begin to read material printed in a booklet
format, they tend to look first at the left-hand page and focus
their attention there. Because this is a ballot in which most people
expect to vote on most or all of the choices, it is also likely that
they would expect to answer the questions in order. It is therefore
likely that many voters began reading the left-hand page without
first looking at the second page and seeing what material was printed
there. Thus, they may have been unaware that some of the candidates
for president were listed on the opposite page.
Most people who completed the ballot knew who they wanted to vote for
prior to reading the list of names. Thus, rather than attempting to
read all of the answer possibilities before marking their choice, they
simply looked for the name of the candidate for whom they wished to
vote. The typical procedure would be to start at the top of the list
and read downwards until the preferred candidate was found.
After reading the first candidate's name (Bush) on the left-hand
page, people who wanted to vote for him should have been guided to the
answer column by the number and an arrow. That circle was also the
first (or top) circle in the answer column. It therefore seems quite
unlikely that the voter would by-pass the first circle and mark the
second circle, thereby voting for Buchanan, by mistake.
In contrast, people who wanted to vote for Gore, and had just seen
Bush's name, would be expected to go straight down the page as they
searched for Gore's name. After finding it, people are likely to
have moved their fingers and thumb that held the stick-pin punching
device to the appropriate punching location. It is likely that
in the process of doing this some people (particularly those who
are right-handed) did not see the number and arrow pointing to the
appropriate answer circle because it was obscured by their hand.
They may have also concluded that the second hole in the column was
the correct one to punch, simply because Gore was the second candidate
on the page. Thus, both the locational feature (being second) and
mechanics of answering seem likely to have worked together in a way
that led some people to inadvertently punch the second hole (Buchanan
choice) rather than the third hole (Gore choice).
The possibility that some circles in the column of possible answers
applied to Buchanan (on the next page) is unlikely to have occurred to
some respondents. It is most unusual for any ballot or questionnaire
to list choices to the first page to the right of the names, while
choices to the second page are listed to the left of the names, and
in addition to have all of them listed in a single column. Therefore,
I would expect that some respondents had no idea that any of the
choices in the answer column applied to the next page instead of
to the candidates on page one. This problem was accentuated by the
presidential preference being listed on the first page of the ballot,
before the respondent had figured out, through experience, exactly how
the ballot worked.
It does seem likely that some respondents who marked the second circle
would have noticed that it was not aligned with the Gore box in the
same way as the first circle was aligned with the Bush box. However,
among those who noticed the different alignment this feature may have
been discounted, because of their having to link together physically
separate components (the actual paper ballot and the booklet listing
candidate names) and the association of the second circle in the
column with the second candidate (Gore) choice.
I would also expect that some ballots were double punched (Gore and
Buchanan) as voters started to punch the second circle, realized they
were making an error, and attempted to recover from it.
Despite the visual and mechanical problems that individually
and jointly increase the likelihood that Gore preference voters
unintentionally and unknowingly voted for Buchanan, the nature of the
problem is such that it would not affect most voters. Most people are
able to "figure-out" how to answer questions when they are presented
in a visually inappropriate way, as was done in this situation.
However, I am also confident that some Gore-preference voters would
have made the error described above. At the same time, and for the
reasons described above, Bush-preference voters were not likely to
make the same mistake.
* AAPORNET: email list for the American Association for Public Opinion Research
Don A. Dillman is the Thomas S. Foley Distinguished Professor of
Government and Public Policy at Washington State University in
Pullman, Washington. The opinions expressed here are his own and
should not be attributed to his employer, Washington State University,
or to the American Association for Public Opinion Research, for which
he now serves as Vice-President and President-Elect.
the theory and research that lead to the interpretations reported
here are published in Chapter 3 of Dillman, Don A. 2000 Mail and
Internet Surveys: The Tailored Design Method, New York: John Wiley;
and Jenkins, Cleo R. and Don A. Dillman 1997 "Towards a Theory of
Self-Administered Questionnaire Design," Chapter 7 of Lyberg, Lars, et
al., Survey Measurement and Process Quality, (pp.165-196,) New York: