Friday, August 27, 2010

The Full Face Ballot "Requirement" Rears Its Ugly Head Again?

On Monday night, the New York City Charter Revision Commission heard public testimony before it voted to place two proposals on November’s ballot. The final 2010 ballot questions are available here.

One element of the Commission’s decision that sparked considerable discontent was the way in which the Commission lumped the proposed changes into just two ballot questions. Several private citizens who testified earlier in the evening urged the Commission to separate the issues; critics said the format would confuse voters, discourage participation, restrict voters’ options, and possibly result in an inaccurate reflection of public intent. The Commission indicated, however, that the bundling of questions was an unavoidable result of the city’s new electronic voting machines. A Wall Street Journal article quotes Commissioner Hope Cohen expressing her belief that “It's unfortunate” so many issues are being bundled together because, “When you get 10 different subjects bundled together, there is a good possibility that you will like various items and not like various items.”

Why are the new voting machines forcing the city to bundle so many issues into just two questions? No one in the press accounts we’ve read has said, but we think we know – it probably has less to do with the new machines, than requirements the State Board put in place for the machines: New York’s “full face ballot requirement,” requires that all contests and questions be placed on a single page. The result is that – unlike with lever machines, which had room for many questions – the Charter Revision Commission must come up with questions that won’t run over to a second page. Breaking up the issues into many questions may make it impossible to meet this requirement.

We have previously blogged about the requirements of New York’s so-called full-face ballot law, as well as the pitfalls of full-face ballots. In 2005 the Brennan Center analyzed the applicable provisions of New York State election law and provided a legal memorandum urging the State Board of Elections to revise its interpretation of the provision and thereby allow New York State to purchase machines with more flexibility, which would allow for better ballot design and more usable ballots.

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