By Wendy Underhill
Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works. –Steve Jobs
Ballot design made news in Florida last week, when it was discovered that 60,000 ballots had been misprinted. The votes recorded on 27,000 absentee ballots in Palm Beach are now being reviewed and hand-transferred onto corrected ballots if necessary.
The Palm Beach difficulty is the result of an error. But even without errors, ballot design can play a surprisingly significant role in elections. The fonts, the print size, the positioning of races on a page, and the use of color and icons all relate to the overall ease-of-use for the voter. If instructions are unclear, the layout is crowded, or the text is hard to read, voters get frustrated and their votes may get lost.
Who's responsible for ballot design? Local election officials do the actual layout of ballots, but they do it under specifications set in state law. Frequently statutes dictate design details, such as what size type to use, whether to use all capital letters (a big no-no for readability), and if party logos are to be included. All of these specifications can be a problem.
The good news is that if design is a statutory problem, there is a statutory solution. "We want legislators to build in flexibility, not rigidity," says Dana Chisnell, an independent researcher who focuses on civic design. That's because expectations around design change over time—and voting technology changes mandate design changes as well. Chisnell advocates that legislatures drop the specifics and instead require usability testing for ballots (and possibly other elections materials). "Usability testing" simply means trying out a draft ballot on potential voters. It can be as simple as asking a handful of willing volunteers to vote a mocked-up ballot.
Ballot design best practices are the backbone of the new "Field Guides To Ensuring Voter Intent." These pocket-sized books belong in the hands of every election administrator—and possibly in the hands of state legislators who serve on election committees as well. Fortunately, they are free for the printing (although by printing it out on 8 ½ by 11 in. paper, the cute factor of the published version is lost).
Here are my favorite suggestions from the field guides for ballot design, suggestions that apply not just to ballots but to just about all written materials as well:
- Use lowercase letters.
- Avoid centered type.
- Use big enough type.
- Pick one sans-serif font.
- Put instructions where they are needed.
Use clear, simple language, using this guide to Plain Language.