Alabama Special Senate Election Ballot Confusion

The special election ballot design was especially confusing in this election as there was only one partisan race on the ballot. This gave voters two ways to support their candidate in the contest. On top of the ballot was a straight party preference ballot option for the two major parties and right under it were the names of the two U.S. Senate candidates with their party labels plus a write-in option.

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By Jay O’Callaghan l December 15, 2017

Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery

Alabama’s recent hotly contested special U.S. Senate election was marred by considerable ballot confusion caused by the state’s straight party voting ballot which allowed voters two ways to vote for the two candidates. The election which Democrat Doug Jones won by 22,000 votes is still under the shadow of a possible recount request from his Republican opponent Roy Moore.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a civil rights group overseeing the election, said 300 voters had “contacted them to report a range of difficulties” through “a voter protection hotline throughout the day” as of early Tuesday evening including confusion over the ballot design.

Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, said “voters were … confused about ‘straight ticket’ voting” reference on the ballot “that lets people choose all the candidates from a single party by simply checking one box. According to Clarke, voters wanted to know what would happen if they checked the box for one party, but then also wanted to vote for another party’s candidate in one race.”

The special election ballot design was especially confusing in this election as there was only one partisan race on the ballot. This gave voters two ways to support their candidate in the contest. On top of the ballot was a straight party preference ballot option for the two major parties and right under it were the names of the two U.S. Senate candidates with their party labels plus a write-in option.

There was so much confusion that Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill (R) issued a statement on election day that voters could choose the straight “party preference” option at the top of the ballot, but still select a specific candidate in the U.S. Senate race and that the latter vote would count. Under this ballot scheme, it appears a voter could contradict their vote by choosing the straight Republican party option and then vote for Democrat Doug Jones, Republican Roy Moore and the last vote would still count. Adding to the confusion were the over 24,000 voters who wrote in a candidate and may also have countered their vote by voting for the straight party option for the two major parties.

Richard Winger, the publisher and editor of the well-respected Ballot Access News, doesn’t hesitate to inject his own political views against Roy Moore when he writes “even though only one partisan race is on the ballot, the ballot uses the straight-ticket device, which will probably confuse some voters. Some Republicans are writing in, so they may mark ‘Republican’ and then write in a name. Those will then become spoiled ballots, or, even worse, Moore votes. And, some people may be operating under the delusion that by just voting ‘Republican’ and not marking any candidate they are personally approving Roy Moore.”

State elections officials have not posted how many voters chose the straight party ballot option in the race but in recent Alabama general elections, a majority of Alabamians cast straight party votes in the general election in November. The straight party ballot option was used more by voters voting for Democrats, with almost half those voting for Republican candidates choosing the straight party option.

Jess Brown, a political science professor at Athens State University, pointed out “that means that half the electorate is not even considering the resume or experience of the candidates. They’re just saying, ‘I’m a D’ or ‘I’m an R.’”

As of December 2017, only nine states had straight party ticket voting including Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah. Michigan has passed legislation to end it but faces court challenges from Democrat groups that claim it discriminates against Black voters who are accustomed to straight party ballot voting. Texas has voted to repeal straight party voting effective September 1, 2020.

Any examination of the ballots to show how many voters were confused having cast contradictory ballots could have been a key issue in a recount. But this possibility was clouded by the Alabama Supreme Court late Monday which stayed Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Shaul’s order earlier that day directing Alabama election officials to preserve digital ballot images during Tuesday’s Senate election. The order came in response to a lawsuit filed Thursday on behalf of four Alabama voters who argued that the state is required to maintain the images under state and federal law.

Shaul said in his order that destroying the images could have a negative impact on voters in Alabama. “After hearing arguments and reviewing the filings, it appears that Plaintiffs and similarly situated voters would suffer irreparable and immediate harm if digital ballot images are not preserved.”

Priscilla Duncan, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the “[the images] need to be preserved at least six months under the statute… they are being told at this point to preserve all digital ballot records.” Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill who was a defendant in the law suit declined to comment.

Digital ballot images are digitized paper ballots that voters fill out in the voting booth. In Alabama, these digital images are destroyed once an election has passed, according to Duncan. “People think that when they mark the ballots and they go into the machine that that’s what counted…but it’s not, the paper ballot is not what’s counted. That ballot is scanned, and they destroy [the ballots] after the election … If there’s ever an election challenge you need to have what was actually counted.”

Duncan added that “Alabama is one of the 21 states that had been targeting for hacking of election systems,” she said, referring to this year’s special election for Georgia’s 6th congressional district.


Jay O’Callaghan has worked extensively with issues involving the U.S. Census Bureau including serving as a professional staff member for the House Government Reform Census Subcommittee, as a senior legislative analyst for the Florida House of Representatives Redistricting Committee and for two U.S. House members. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the Conservative-Online-Journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.