A bumper crop of U.S. Senate candidates and the resulting challenge in designing ballots may be why more than 235,000 California voters had their selections for the race rejected in June.
"Our research shows a clear problem with complicated ballot designs," said Philip Muller, an Election Data Analyst whose firm creates Online Voter guides.
Muller and partner Davit Avagyan sorted through election results from all but six California Counties to see how many "over-votes" were cast in the U.S. Senate race, ballots on which voters chose two or more candidates.
Because Elections officials have no way of knowing which of those candidates was the preferred choice, those Senate votes weren't counted.
Election officials warned this past spring of potential confusion with a ballot listing 34 Candidates who were in the race to replace Sen. Barbara Boxer. Under the State's Top-Two Primary rules, only Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez advanced to the Nov. 8 General election.
A variety of ballot designs were used by Counties, some with more over-vote totals than others. The data analysts concluded that some of the most significant problems happened in Counties that used double columns of Senate candidates on two successive ballot pages, with voters presumably thinking they were voting on more than one race.
"The more complicated the design, the more likely voters were to over-vote, which caused their votes to be disqualified," Avagyan said.
Though the missing votes would not have changed the outcome, Harris bested Sanchez by almost 1.6 million votes in the June Primary, the analysis found that the Senate race stood alone in the number of over-voted ballots.
Elections officials worked hard to avoid the problem once the long list of candidates became final. "County registrars saw this as an issue early on in the primary and jumped on it from a design standpoint and voter education priority," said Dean Logan, Registrar of voters in Los Angeles County and President of the State Association of Elections Officers.
But even with new voting machines envisioned, many that would allow more flexible ballot designs, the popularity of voting by mail means the problem could persist.
"The reality is, however, that vote-by-mail continues to be a primary choice for voters in California and the design and layout options are limited," Logan said. "Voter education and outreach remains critical."
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