U.S. Senate Sample Ballot - 060716

Sample ballot for the June 7 California Senate primary. (Los Angeles County)

John Myers
April 24, 2016

If elections officials could send just one message to California’s 17.2 million registered voters about the U.S. Senate primary in June, it would probably be this: Read the instructions carefully.

“It’s not necessarily intuitive on how to properly mark this ballot,” said Kammi Foote, registrar of voters for Inyo County. And a mistake could keep a ballot from counting.

On primary day, the race to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer will feature 34 candidates. Only four of those candidates have received appreciable support in public polling so far, and five will appear at the first Senate debate Monday night.

But the full field is larger than any single roster of statewide contenders since the colossal list of 135 candidates who ran in the 2003 special election that recalled then-Gov. Gray Davis. (To make the ballot, candidates must pay about $3,500 or collect 10,000 signatures.)

The glut of candidates presents serious challenges in designing a ballot that makes sense to voters while also adhering to California election laws.

In some ways, the Senate election is so far beyond the capacity of the system that it’s requiring a unique set of solutions. “You’re not just trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, you’re trying to fit a skyscraper in a round hole,” said Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley.

In most races, with a handful of candidates, names appear in a single column on one page of the voting booklet, a clear sign to voters that they should only pick one. But with 34 candidates, the geography of ballot templates tends to favor listing the names in two, side-by-side columns, on facing pages of the voting booklet.

That’s where the trouble lies for the Senate race, as voters could mistake the two columns as two distinct races and choose one name from each list. That would result in an “overvote,” a ballot cast for two or more candidates, which is thus disqualified.

The two-column layout gained notoriety in the 2000 presidential race with the so-called “butterfly ballot” design in Palm Beach County, Fla. Already, some have similar fears about what could happen in California.

In early April, a team of ballot design experts joined elections officials in Santa Cruz County to test a variety of side-by-side options for arranging the Senate candidates’ names. In trial runs, they found that no matter how they tinkered with the format, more than one-third of the mock ballots were marked with an overvote.

“That’s devastatingly high,” said Whitney Quesenbery of the Center for Civic Design, a New Jersey-based educational organization that set up the test.

Some counties have been able to fit all 34 names in a single column on the June ballot, making clear that those candidates are competing against one another. California holds a “top-two” primary that sends only the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, to the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

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