Design For Democracy Redesigns the Vote

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It's election day here in the United States, and no better time to introduce the latest effort of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, a 186-page handbook aimed at revitalizing the way the American government interacts with voters.

Design for Democracy: Ballot + Election Democracy for Design was put together by AIGA founding member and University of Illinois at Chicago professor Marcia Lausen and includes dozens and dozens of guidelines for election officials.

We spoke with Richard Grefé, executive director of the AIGA, about where the book fits along the Design for Democracy path, how it came together and its potential impact.

What's most interesting about the book and the direction Design for Democracy is heading at the moment?

RG: It's fascinating for two reasons, one because it shows the power of information design, secondly because it actually makes a difference. It's been long in coming. Right after Florida I started talking to people on the Hill and in Washington about this stuff. Well they didn't understand what the hell I was talking about in the beginning, but in every room there's a Coke can with a nutrition label on it; you can point to and they begin to understand.

What's the plan for getting these books into hand of election officials?

RG: Design for Democracy actually has two or three parallel tracks. One is a number of projects that resulted in the work that's in the book by Marcia Lausen. On a parallel track we were using this theory and experience to develop the guidelines for the federal Elections Assistance Commission in Washington, which has been adopted now, so they are the guidelines for all for the jurisdictions in the country. But on the book itself, we're going to send a copy to every member of Congress from the designers in their district and then also there'll be copies sent to every election official, chief election official in each state. Not necessarily every local official. At least 7,000 different local jurisdictions actually design ballots, but we're going to start at the state level and get them in the hands of those 50 people who have a fair amount of influence on the local jurisdictions but not actual control. Then we'll promote it.

But the legislation pushes those local jurisdictions.

RG: Just like education it's basically a local prerogative on designing the ballot, and there are two reasons for that: one because of our long legacy of federalism, but secondly because every local ballot's different because there are local offices on the ballot. The Election Assistance Commission developed the guidelines and has published and strongly encourages local jurisdictions to use them.

Now, we don't expect it in the first cycle, which is this fall, we expect it to show up a little bit in next year's general election, and we expect it to be adopted over time after there are a couple of good success stories in using it. The obstacles to using it are very pragmatic. Because we talk about the clarity of type, the certain scale, size is important for legibility, some jurisdictions say, well, it's going to make the ballot longer and so it doubles the printing cost, that sort of thing. They feel there are these obstacles, which, to them, are significant. If you step back and say It's cheaper than a recount, there's no question.

I think initially there will be some resistance but as major jurisdictions adopt the guidelines and demonstrate their success I think we'll be fine and slowly we'll see increasing adoption. Currently we're in discussion with the state of Florida to write their state regulations to strongly encourage local jurisdictions to use the guidelines, but the Election Assistance Commission cannot require local jurisdictions to do anything, they can tie it to the use of federal money if they want, which they haven't done yet, but the commission is very excited about this work.

The redesigned ballot, before (left) and after.
The redesigned ballot, before (left) and after.
Now, further along on the logistics tip, will local jurisdictions be able to download templates?

RG: We just mounted the operational version of the book; we loaded it all on our website, and there are certainly templates, they would need to have somebody who knows how to use InDesign to actually implement it.

I'd imagine most local jurisdictions don't have money to hire designers.

RG: They normally don't have a graphic designer on staff. In the state of Oregon they have a designer, he's an AIGA state of Oregon fellow, which we encourage other states to do; we select a recent graduate to work in the Secretary of State's office to help implement this stuff. The Secretary of State of Oregon is absolutely delighted. They use federal money to pay for this position and this person not only designs all ballot materials but other stuff in the Secretary of State's office. They're one of our strongest advocates in telling other states You've got to do this.

Quick side story, Oregon is an interesting state because it's the only state in the union where there are no polling places, everybody votes at home, it's all vote by mail. The tensions that are created in households because husbands and wives don't realize how the other is going to vote, they sit at the kitchen table and they suddenly discover how they vote, and since you don't have to send it in right away these arguments develop over days, trying to persuade each other and it actually creates marital tensions. But in any case, many states don't have a graphic designer on staff, and in those cases we're encouraging them to go to the AIGA designer directory and find a local designer to implement it. And what we're saying is the cost of doing this is lower than a recall, lower than a recount, and ultimately it's the cost of engaged citizenry.

A polling setup in Cook county
A polling setup in Cook county Credit: Nathan Mandell
Was there much testing done?

RG: Yes, there was testing done in a number of jurisdictions, the most extensive testing was done in Nebraska, where they got the Secretary of State's office or the chief election official to allow us to do a redesigned and an old ballot in an elections last fall and test the consequences of the two. From the start we had an ethnographic team working on the process and then we did user testing of both, in hypothetical situations and actual ballots in Nebraska and a couple of other states.

Actually, though, what you can do is test in terms of whether voters found it easier to use or not. In terms of the effect on the outcomes, there was a test after Marcia Lausen redesigned the Cook county ballot, and in Cook county, which is Chicago, the municipal judge part of the ballot goes on for pages, there are 20 or 30 candidates, and a researcher in California, I think it was at UCLA, looked at ballots prior to and after the redesign and discovered more candidates were voted for lower on the list because people could keep going without tiring. They look at the ballot and were able to accessibly deal with the whole ballot and make choices rather than giving up after the first page. So there's some evidence that the ballots are used more effectively. Otherwise you're getting sort of a hedonic index on how people feel about the ballot rather than actual research.

In looking at the way things are being done now and how jurisdictions have historically presented their information to voters, are there any historical ballots you've found or any ballots that you've looked at and said This one's pretty well done, or are they all part of an ugly past?

RG: There were no exemplars that struck us; some were certainly clearer than others but for the most part the design or the work on the ballot each year is sort of an incremental change on the previous years, who knows when they initially made some of the decisions. Frequently the design is being done by the printer. To my knowledge there were no real standouts in the current practices.

A poster for an AIGA Get Out The Vote initiative
A poster for an AIGA Get Out The Vote initiative
What about the worst offenders?

RG: [They have] this consistent gray matter, just going on and on. In fact, in the book, if you look at the difference between the former ballots for the judges in Cook Country and the proposed redesign you'll see there are some consequences which seem so illogical to you and me but permeate most ballots. For instance, the bilingual requirement resulted in the old ballot having Spanish and English on every candidate's name, what they're running for, even though they're all running for the same office, so you only have to put it once. In that ballot too, there was a state law that said you could not use lower case in people's names; it was just fundamentally illegible. It didn't differentiate the way the eye naturally reads type.

Things like that build up; probably the real problem is the average was so mediocre or so undistinguished; that's the egregious problem, it's not the peaks and the valleys. There were also some interesting examples if you go down to the International Foundation for Election Systems, the IFES, down in Washington, which has samples of ballots from around the world, you see some ballots which are so simple, you wonder how they escaped us. One Latin American ballot, that was printed on newsprint and had four columns, it was this long tally sheet, it was probably six inches wide and 24 inches long, the first column was the symbol of the party, the second was the photograph of the candidate, the third was the name of the candidate and the fourth was an empty square where you put your thumbprint when you voted for them and it was overprinted in Braille. It was a very simple ballot, whether you were literate or illiterate you could associate with these candidates and there was a very clear trail. Of course, the downside is they had your fingerprint on it. The ballot here from the first vote in post-Apartheid South Africa; that's a beautifully simple ballot.

I also saw a bit in a book about touchscreen voting; that seems like it'd be particularly difficult to implement because you'd have to get inside the machine.

RG: Well, the problem with touchscreen voting, there are two problems, certainly it looked like it'd be the wave of the future but all the questions about security and the paper trail have pretty much stopped the progress on that. In terms of the design, the problem there has been the manufacturers. There are four or six touchscreen manufacturers nationwide. It's an odd kind of product. You make it, you sell it, it comes out once a year but people keep it for 20 years, so it's an odd product cycle. There has been resistance due to the interface design not working with their software, and there had not been any real initiative to accommodate our design recommendations. However we just ad an opening with one of the manufacturers, ES&S, in Nebraska, so that may open up, but up until that time, we've done a lot of testing with that and really are delighted with the navigation scheme we've come up with. We didn't really get any traction with the manufacturers, really, up until like two weeks ago. And really we hadn't worried too much about it because the political momentum had died because of the verification issue. But, what we came up with goes beyond what's in Marcia's book.

It's strange you have a poster child in Oregon then all these other issues in the rest of the country.

RG: There's something else about Oregon. In Oregon, logically, the Secretary of State is 100 percent behind the redesign, but also realizes it'll take a long time to roll it out, each election they roll out a couple of pieces, but one of the interesting thing is, the issues brochure, they have a lot of ballot initiatives in Oregon, and the issues brochure, which describes the pros and cons of each issue, we had proposed language simplification on that, and somebody had raised the concern that t the pro and con arguments are written by interest groups and they buy space in the brochure, so if we implement language simplification there'd be a revenue shortfall. Very strange. Again, one of those odd like the law that says it's got to be upper case that stand in the way of good design.

It does seem like a very contrived system.

RG: My European colleagues just cannot understand why there's not a federal mandate and why it can't be simplified. I hope as it gets broad adoption it becomes as important as nutrition labels, as I mentioned earlier. If you look at how to make democracy responsive and increase voter turnout a lot of it has to do with increasing the level of trust between citizens and the government, and most of the interchange between the government and citizens consists of asking for information, which means it's fundamentally a design problem. And so I'd love to get a shot at the Medicare forms and other things. If you've got an elderly parent you know to be elderly in this country you need to have a large kitchen table for all your Medicare forms. We worked on census stuff, we were asked by the IRS if we would help them review the 20,000 pieces of collateral they have, but not the tax form itself. There are a lot of places where this could be a model if we're successful.

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