Original Reports

A Contrast in Ballots

I took it as evidence that double-checking work is very important when, while creating a sample ballot to hand out at the polls, I marked the circle for the wrong budget at this year’s financial town referendum (FTR).  I was tired and rushed, and it was natural to fill in the oval directly under Budget #2.  Of course, it took only a moment to realize the mistake and correct the error.

However, standing outside the high school on Saturday, members of Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) were actually surprised at the number of comments supporters made about how confusing the ballot was.  Those comments continued after the results were announced, with people writing by email and Facebook message, even stopping us on the street.

As one email put it, “there was an automatic inclination to approve [Budget 2] right after reading Budget 2, but it was really approving Budget 1!”  Another supporter told us that she had started to mark the wrong circle and then had to argue with a poll worker to receive a blank ballot in order to correct it.

To be clear, while we agree that the ballot was badly designed, we doubt that confusion in filling it out changed the outcome.  Out of the 2,770 people who voted on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, 156 would have had to make this error — and not catch themselves — for it to have made the difference; that would have been 6% of voters.

Still, it’s reasonable to think that the ballots were not presented as they should have been and to seek to have them changed in the future.  By way of comparison, the following is a side-by-side comparison of this ballot (on the right) with the ballot the last time there were two budgets, in 2015 (on the left).  (In 2016, three budgets followed the old format, and in 2017, with the switch to ovals, only one budget was on the ballot.)

The visual break after the budget descriptions on the 2015 ballot, with the reminder to “vote for only one,” and the repeat of the numbers make it much more intuitive to vote for the correct budget.

Simply to put this question to rest, TTA will be seeking to inspect the ballots.  We don’t expect to find anything unusual, and we certainly don’t expect the outcome to change, but the most productive way to move past controversies is to review all of the available evidence.

More importantly, we’ll be asking the Board of Canvassers to revise the ballots for future FTRs to make the vote more straightforward.


Justin Katz

Justin Katz is a writer and researcher focusing on Rhode Island policy and politics. For more about Justin, see our About page. justin@justinkatz.com (401) 835-7156.

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