Gotham Gazette

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Gotham Votes 2013

You May Have To Squint To Read The Ballot

The ballots for November's election will be printed in 6-point font, the smallest size ever used by the city's Board of Elections.

The font size is so small that board officials say they may offer anyone struggling to read the ballot specialized devices typically used by people who are visually impaired.

“This was the best decision we could make in this election cycle considering the challenges we were facing with the complexity of the ballot,” Board of Elections Executive Director Michael Ryan said at the meeting.

Ryan noted that the board had previously requested even smaller type — font size 5 for a 2010 ballot. That size was pre-cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act, but a spokeswoman for the BOE said the board never used it.

“We believe that puts the board in the best position to avoid unnecessary litigation in respect to this matter,” Ryan said at the meeting.

Last week, the Gotham Gazette reported that the board had solicited advice from the city’s corporation counsel on whether or not the use of different font sizes across the boroughs depending on space on the ballot violated any equal protection requirements under election law.

That interpretation of election law — compounded with the requirement to make enough room for English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Bengali — has resulted in crowded ballots with tiny type that the board openly admitted might be too difficult for some voters to read.

Theoretically, the use of different font sizes for different languages required by law could open the door for lawsuits. The board refused to disclose what the city's attorneys had suggested under attorney-client privilege; the city's Law Department also declined to comment.

Ryan added that the board would explore options for improving ballot education ahead of Nov. 5. He pulled out a draft of a giant, quad-fold poster of a ballot that would be placed at polling sites.

He also suggested that the board would expand the option of ballot marking devices, or BMDs, which have typically been offered to disabled voters who require assistance in casting their vote and were available during the primary.

Unlike the primary, which brought back the controversial lever machines to supposedly turn around the vote counts in a timely matter for the runoff, the optical scanners are back for the general election.

Alex Camarda of Citizens Union, Gotham Gazette’s sister organization, suggested at today's board meeting that multiple-page ballots be considered for future elections.

Umane said the commissioners were willing to entertain the idea as soon as they certify November’s results. He and Ryan agreed that the board would have to balance either proposal with cost and existing election law as set by Albany legislators. Umane added that it would help to provide those state lawmakers with an actual template of what the board wants the ballot to look like before the 2014 primaries.

“Next year, the Legislature is all up — as well as the governor — for election,” Umane said. “It seems that they take a greater interest every two years when they tend to be — just a coincidence I’m sure — more interested in some of these issues when their own election is imminent.”

Some lawmakers in Albany are already tired of waiting.

State Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh sent out a joint release with state Sen. Liz Krueger, City Councilwoman Gale Brewer and various good government groups soon after today's board meeting to call for proactive reform.

“Shrinking the words to a minuscule 6-point font is simply not acceptable,” Kavanagh said in the statement, pointing to his two-year old Voter-Friendly Ballot Act. The bill would modernize ballots across the state.

“We have legislation that would make this impermissible — and would make it easier for boards of elections to design ballots that are clearer in a variety of ways,” he added, “but it shouldn’t take an act of the Legislature to make sure people with reasonably good eyesight can actually read the names of the people they’re voting for.”

Voters can get a preview of the ballot ahead of Nov. 5 by visiting the board’s poll site locator.

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