The art of better ballot design

A well-designed ballot is an under-appreciated part of a successful democratic process. Anyone who remembers the 2000 butterfly ballot from Palm Beach knows that confusing ballots mean confused voters — which led to elderly Jewish Floridians voting for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore. Confusing ballots have continued to disrupt recent elections. Two months ago on Super Tuesday, a poorly designed California ballot bewildered 50,000 non-partisan voters trying to vote in the Democratic primary. In order to have their votes counted, non-partisan voters – voters who have not declared themselves as a member of a party – needed to fill out a bubble confirming that they were voting in the Democratic primary, followed by a second bubble for their actual candidate choice. In Los Angeles County, 776,000 voters faced what has become known as “double bubble trouble.” For a picture of the ballot, click here.

Despite the title of this post, ballot design is rarely much of an art — or a science. Designing easy-to-use ballots is a surprisingly complicated task in large part because ballot designers do not exist. Instead, county officials oversee the production of ballots that are constructed according to individual state election codes. Not surprisingly, election codes are not written to produce beautiful or helpful ballots, and they often contain detailed, specific requirements down to name placement, name ordering, font sizes and shapes. While inserting color – red for Republicans, blue for Democrats – may seem like a good idea, election codes often prohibit it.

Inspired by the failures of the Florida butterfly ballot, some Chicago ballot designers decided to lend their expertise to election officials in Chicago and Oregon. Their work has been published as part of a recent new book Design for Democracy: Ballot + Election Design. Some of the lessons: Since voters typically look at the upper left of a page first, large, clear diagrams that instruct voters how to fill out their ballot are crucial. Other tips include displaying the candidates name more prominently than the number assigned to that candidate and using lowercase lettering instead of all capital letters, which author Marcia Lausen says is confusing because capital letters have similar silhouettes. Lausen also recommends keeping font size and types face variations to a minimum at the top of the ballot, and flushing text to the left instead of centering it because left-justified text is easier for human eyes to follow. To see how these changes have been implemented into Chicago area ballots see this recent graphic in Chicago Magazine.

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