The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Tim Bradley, Brennan Center for Justice, (646) 452-5637

Mississippi Ballot Will Disenfranchise Hundreds of Thousands of Voters

Ballot Experts Urge State Officials to Place Wicker-Musgrove US Senate Contest at Top of Ballot with Other Federal Races


Today the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, a
non-partisan advocate for voting rights and sound ballot design,
released a letter sent yesterday to Mississippi state officials sharply
criticizing their intention to place November's Wicker-Musgrove U.S.
Senate race at the bottom of Mississippi's ballot, far from the other
federal races listed in the 2008 election.

Concerned that the confusing layout will mislead and disenfranchise
hundreds of thousands of Mississippi voters this November, particularly
low-income and minority voters, the Brennan Center's 2-page letter to
the Mississippi Governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General comes
one day after the New York Times called attention to the controversial
ballot in a national editorial, "Mississippi's Ballot Trick".

In the letter, Lawrence Norden, Counsel at the Brennan Center and
co-author of a recent study on Ballot Design called Better Ballots,
cites multiple studies on how contest placement greatly affects the
accuracy of voters' choices, and urges Mississippi officials to reverse
their decision and place the contest towards the top of the ballot with
the other federal races.

"Poor ballot design-such as placing a U.S. Senate race at the bottom of
a ballot, when all other federal races are at the top-frustrates
voters, undermines confidence in the electoral process, and often
results in the loss of a large number of votes. In Better Ballots we
found that placement of a contest on a ballot has a tremendous impact
on whether voters' choices are accurately recorded. When a contest is
not placed where voters expect it to be placed, those voters are more
likely to make errors-and in particular, to miss the contest
altogether," writes Norden.

  • In 2006 in Sarasota County, the contest for Congressional
    District 13 was displayed on the touch-screen machines' ballot in a
    place that made it difficult for many voters to find. The result was
    that approximately 15% of voters using these machines did not record a
    vote in the Congressional race, compared to just 2.5% of voters who
    voted on absentee ballots (which did not use the confusing design).
  • In Mississippi in 2002 and 2004, we saw that the further down on a
    ballot a contest is placed, the less likely voters are to vote on it.
    Approximately 3%-or 18,000-of all voters failed to record votes in
    Congressional races at the top of the ballot in Mississippi in 2002. By
    contrast 21%-or more than 140,000 voters-did not have votes counted on
    a statewide Amendment, located at the bottom of most ballots that same
    year. Similarly, in 2004, 7%-or 88,000 voters-failed to record a vote
    on a widely publicized Amendment related to gay marriage.
  • Low-income and minority voters are likely to be disproportionately
    impacted by the decision to move the U.S. Senate contest to the bottom
    of the ballot. For instance, only 3.5% of voters in counties with
    median incomes of greater than $32,500 failed to vote on the gay
    marriage Amendment in 2004; that number increased to 5.8% for counties
    with median incomes between $25,000 and $32,500, and jumped again to
    10.6% for counties with median incomes below $25,000. Similarly, just
    4.7% of voters in counties with less than 30% African American
    population failed to cast a vote on the gay marriage Amendment; in
    counties with more than 30% African Americans, that number was 9.2%.

"We do not believe that your placement of local special election
contests at the end of the ballot in recent years should have any
impact on where to place the Wicker-Musgrove U.S. Senate contest this
year. Local contests are always at or near the bottom of the ballot in
Mississippi, regardless of whether they are part of a special election.
In the special race to fill the remainder of Trent Lott's term, the
Wicker-Musgrove race, most voters will expect to find it near the top
of the ballot, with other federal and statewide contests. We can think
of no legitimate public purpose in designing a ballot that will
conflict with those expectations. For that reason, and to prevent
widespread voter confusion and disenfranchisement in this Senate race,
we strongly urge you to reverse your decision and place the
Wicker-Musgrove race on the same portion of the ballot as all other
federal contests," writes Norden.

The full letter is available here.

The Brennan Center for Justice is a nonpartisan law and policy institute. We strive to uphold the values of democracy. We stand for equal justice and the rule of law. We work to craft and advance reforms that will make American democracy work, for all.

(646) 292-8310