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It's the Ballot, Stupid

Bad Design Could Still Create Confusion on Election Day

By Published on . 6

It's been eight years since the Florida hanging-chad debacle almost created a constitutional crisis in the U.S. Despite many changes, poorly designed ballots still abound, and with them the risk that some voters will face confusion in the voting booth. Poor design unnecessarily complicates a whole range of situations where people need to indicate their choices: benefits enrollment, investment elections, insurance and health-care coverage, along with many other large and small selections every day. [Editor's note: For a look at voter technology on a state-by-state basis, check out this site.]

Recognizing the stakes involved, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission published guidelines for the 6,000-odd election officials responsible for ballots in their precincts. The guidelines include "best practice" sample ballots that were developed by graphic designers.

But there are no national standards, nor even national requirements. Ballots are designed by state or county election officials who are just what they sound like -- public servants and lawyers, not graphic designers. The publishing guidelines say things like "Use color functionally and consistently." This kind of advice cannot ensure that a non-designer can suddenly design a clear, mistake-proof ballot. And the guidelines themselves are 266 pages long and, in places, violate the design principles for good instructional text. So even the best-intentioned election official is still severely design handicapped.

The result is that despite the improvements, all too often it's still not clear where to check, fill or touch, as anyone who has experienced that paralyzing moment of "Did I actually vote for my candidate?" voter anxiety can attest.

This shouldn't be so hard to fix. As communications experts who work with clients on making their applications, enrollment and election forms, and legal and regulatory documents easier and more comprehensible, here's our recommended solution:
  1. Create a standardized ballot and require that every state use it.

  2. Have experienced information designers create it.

  3. Have credible researchers thoroughly test it in quantitative usability studies with voters across geographic, age-based and socio-economic categories. This is crucial. Designs always look easy to follow to the people who designed them. Make sure others find them easy to use, too.

  4. Have all jurisdictions publish an accurate replica of the actual ballot so voters will become familiar with it before they step into the booth.
Sure, a bi-partisan, multistate task force would have to oversee the experts' work, and all states would ultimately have to approve it. But what's the downside?

All challenges aside, please make sure you exercise your right to vote.

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Both Barbara Sullivan and Maria Boos work for Sullivan & Company, a communications strategy and design firm with offices in New York and Washington. Barbara Sullivan is managing partner, and Maria Boos is practice lead, functional communications.