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Good design is a civic duty

Written by: Donald Borenstein

Published on: May 12, 2016

Every voter uses them and elections literally cannot happen without them. But numerous organizations recognize them as a severe problem in the process, and we think they're a big threat to civil liberties. It's time to tackle this major point of friction for voters: poorly designed ballots.

For all the heated primary battles and attention grabbing showdowns, 2016 has proved just as contentious for the electoral process itself. With voters suffering through impossibly crowded and understaffed polling sites, the rise of controversial voter ID laws, and tens of thousands of voters simply disappearing from the registry, it’s not surprising that a whopping 2/3rds of Americans consider the American Electoral process to be fundamentally broken (source).

But while all these problems are mired in a near-impenetrable array of socio-economic factors that make it difficult to implement solutions, at least one of the major stumbling blocks for American voters is a clear, obvious, and relatively nonpartisan problem:

Our ballots are hideous, illegible garbage

Take this New York City demonstration ballot, for example:


Imagine having to strain your eyes to read this in a tiny booth at your local dimly lit elementary school gymnasium. Now tell me that you’re confident that you won’t fill it out wrong.

Tear down this wall (of text)

Every ballot is different, but even the “best” and most streamlined of US ballots are a thick wall of text with often inscrutable selection methods. From Oklahoma to Maryland to Puerto Rico to Mississippi, each has a radically different ballot, but all share the same two crucial design flaws:

  • First, the layout for each is a wall of information that is densely packed in a way that makes it difficult to read. Voting is already a stressful, time consuming experience without straining to read 8 point font.
  • Secondly, the highly specific instructions for how to vote are either buried at the bottom of the page, or stuck on the back. These are crucial instructions, and violating any of them will get your vote thrown out. With unnecessarily obtuse commands such as “Do Not Overvote”, it is inevitable that voters will make mistakes in attempting to exercise their right to vote.

More often than not, the people led into making these errors will be lower-income individuals with difficulties in reading comprehension. Bad ballots aren’t just an aesthetic travesty: The Brennan Center for Justice and the AIGA agree that they’re a threat to civil liberties.

Beyond tackles the ballot crisis

I thought this would be a good opportunity to run this sample ballot by one of our in-house design experts, Ian Cox, who has never had the misfortune of looking at a New York ballot. Here are some of his observations:

  1. Poor design hierarchy: “There’s literally no hierarchy whatsoever. Everything is the same size, and you have no idea where to look. This isn’t meant to be read. Does it look like it’s meant to be read?”
  2. Poor content hierarchy: “It should be about showing the right information at the right time. In a digital platform, it becomes easy, because you can have different steps– on one screen, you just show what a user needs to see at one moment. On a paper form, you have to show everything you need at once, so they need to make a hierarchy from most to least important.”
  3. The Ballot of Babel: While ballots do need multiple language options & detailed instructions, Cox notes that stacking them makes comprehension impossible. “They’re showing you the exact same thing in six or seven different languages at once. You’ll always see these walls of text where the line lengths are so long, your eyes will jump and skip lines.”
  4. The Government lives in web 1.0: “If this was done digitally, you would pick your language and only see that, but seeing so much extra clutter visually distracts from what you’re trying to accomplish. And I think that’s the case for all of this. [But US government sites] are utterly hideous. They are about 10 years in the past, and they’re probably insecure.” Check out Cal-Access for a great example of this in action.

Could online voting make democracy great again?

So, why aren’t we voting digitally? While some states use very rudimentary electronic polling stations that barely qualify as Y2K ready, states are even rolling these back in favor of a return to paper ballots. The concept of voting from your phone or personal computer is simply not on the table in the United States. This is in spite of the fact that Canada has successfully used internet voting in trials, and – closer to home – US state and federal offices trust internet submissions for everything from unemployment claims to tax returns.

While there’s been significant research on the concept, one of the most frequent concerns is that lost electronic ballots can never be recovered. This is a strange concern, given how many ballots are lost in the first place due to polling errors on paper ballots.

There’s still hope, even for analog ballots

If the US insists on sticking to paper ballots, Ian Cox is here to help them figure it out:

  1. Security and simplicity go hand in hand: Election commissions should look to the example of financial tech startups like Simple. Cox explained: “They try to make it easier, and they’ve also been very transparent about what they’re doing. Their terms of use are on GitHub, and they use very clear language. They sent out a very concise, easy to understand version of a document banks are legally required to send out– so users can actually understand what they’re dealing with.”
  2. Design standards are vital: The US needs to have a clear set of design standards not just for ballots, but for all of their online forms in general. “Look at the UK’s set of government design principles,” Cox suggests, “they have a clearly designed methodology for how to build these things.”
  3. K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid): With straightforward instructions and a clean design, ballots can be more accessible to all types of voters. “[A simplified content hierarchy] makes it so much cleaner and so much easier. Extra clutter distracts visually of what you’re trying to accomplish. Take for example IKEA’s instructions– they don’t even have a language, they’re just visual.”
  4. One nation, one ballot: There is no reason why there needs to be different ballots for different states. “Obviously there’s going to be different content for different local circumstances,” Cox reasoned, “but there’s no reason why the system that everything flows into cannot be the same.”

Voters deserve good design

But whether the solution is digital voting or cleaner, more refined paper ballots, the current state of ballots are a travesty. These flawed, disparate, and opaque designs present a threat to the democratic process itself. After all, poorly designed “butterfly” ballots in Florida led to the 2000 Election crisis that ended with the controversial intervention of the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore. Without an intelligent and accessible design solution for our voting process, it’s only a matter of time before history repeats itself.