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The View From Here: Ballot Forms

Ballots are one of the most important forms in a functioning democracy. Poorly designed ballots can confuse voters, causing Election Day problems and leading to endless lawsuits over the election outcomes. Yet for too long, ballot design has been largely ignored in the United States. In the past eight years, federal and state legislative efforts have focused on ways in which we can make the act of voting more “usable.” These efforts—such as the Help America Vote Act passed by Congress in 2002—have focused on new voting technology as the main way to solve election problems. Since then, state governments have rushed to buy new voting equipment. Some purchased electronic voting machines that resemble ATMs. Others bought optical scan systems where voters mark paper ballots that are read by a computer scanner.

Yet all voting technologies are undermined if the ballot is poorly designed. In each general election in the United States, thousands of ballots are miscast because of poorly designed ballots.

  • The outcome of the 2000 presidential election was delayed because of a recount in Florida. Several counties using optical scan or punch card ballots listed the candidates in multiple columns or on multiple ballot pages (such as the infamous “butterfly ballot”). More than 100,000 Florida ballots were invalidated because of voting errors and thousands more Florida citizens cast their votes for an unintended candidate.
  • The outcome of a close congressional election in Florida in 2006 remained in doubt for several weeks. Electronic voting machines in Sarasota County showed the congressional race and the gubernatorial race on the same screen. The design highlighted the gubernatorial race and led more than 18,000 voters to miss the congressional contest.
  • Three months after the last general election, we still did not know the winner of a United States Senate seat in Minnesota. The recount has focused heavily on thousands of ballots that were incorrectly marked by voters. In political science, we study the impact of ballot design in a few ways.

In real elections we measure the number of “residual votes”—the difference between the number of ballots cast and the number of valid votes counted. Residual votes can be the result of under votes (accidentally or intentionally not selecting any candidate) or over votes (selecting too many candidates, usually by mistake). Other studies observe subjects voting in controlled tests and note how many mistakes they make (for example, voting for the wrong candidate or for too many candidates). Poorly designed ballots are a leading cause of voting mistakes in controlled tests and residual votes in real elections.

After noting these dreary findings, the good news is that election officials, researchers, and advocates are starting to pay more attention to ballot design. We have had the good fortune to join a growing interdisciplinary community of usability and design professionals, election officials, political scientists, and legal experts interested in ballot design and other usability issues related to voting in and administering elections. UPA and AIGA members are interested in applying usability and design principles to ballots and other election materials. Political scientists are interested in the factors that influence voters. Legal advocates want to ensure that every vote counts. Election officials want to avoid Election Day problems and lawsuits. There is a shared interest in achieving fair and efficient elections. It has been a wonderful learning experience for us to see how other disciplines view the act of voting.

We recently worked with a group of experts from each of these fields on a report, Better Ballots, produced by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. The report notes many common ballot design problems and includes guidelines for designing good ballots for any type of voting equipment. Many of us in the Brennan Center task force presented the report to local election officials in several states before the 2008 election. Presentations included instructions on how officials could conduct their own usability tests. Design for Democracy, a component of AIGA, has advised state and local jurisdictions on election design issues for many years. Design for Democracy recently published a report on Effective Designs for the Administration of Federal Elections for the U. S. Election Assistance Commission. We have worked with many election officials who want to make real improvements.

If elections are to accurately reflect the will of the people, then ballots should be designed so that all voters can easily understand and use them. We hope to keep moving toward that goal