Wanted: A Legible Voting Ballot

Why it’s time to redesign the ballot design process.

Click on images for an enlarged view.

Official California sample ballot

With a record 133 candidates (post-Arianna) in the California gubernatorial race, the Oct. 7 election poses a nontrivial design challenge: How to fit all those names on the ballot? In a sense, the election is a litmus test of how far we’ve come since the 2000 presidential election, when the now-infamous butterfly in Palm Beach County, Fla., put ballot design on newspapers’ front pages. *

The answer: not far. A study carried out by USA Today and seven other newspapers in 2001 concluded that faulty design, not punch-card machines, was responsible for voters’ confusion in Palm Beach County in 2000. Despite this finding, states have focused their election-reform energies on upgrading old punch-card machines to optical-scan systems or on implementing electronic voting. They have dismissed or ignored the butterfly layout’s problematic design as an aberration—a stupid mistake on the part of local officials.

But bad ballot design is a nationwide problem that needs to be remedied. The problem starts with the fact that ballots aren’t designed by a designer. Instead, county officials oversee their production, and the ballots are put together according to each state’s election code. California’s code, like many of the other states’, is a lengthy document that reads like a bureaucrat’s version of the Ten Commandments: “The Secretary of State shall conduct a drawing of the letters of the alphabet, the result of which shall be known as a randomized alphabet. … There shall be four drawings, three in each even-numbered year and one in each odd-numbered year.” You half-expect mention of a plague.

These state election codes generally were drawn up by people who had no idea how to use graphic design to convey information. The California Election Code stipulates the use of specific typefaces, minimum and maximum point sizes and margins, and other specifications—but these requirements aren’t based on any accepted design principles. The result is the confusing sample recall ballot distributed by the secretary of state’s office last month.

On the sample ballot, the candidates’ names are listed in alphabetical order according to a randomly chosen alphabet (RWQOJMVAHBSGZXNTCIEKUPDYFL). The order of the list rotates from district to district, like a batting order, so as to offset what’s called “the primacy effect”—the natural advantage lent to candidates appearing near the top of a list. From an information-design perspective, this is insanity. The customary A to Z, like any form of standardization (miles, dollars, pounds) helps us navigate the world. While a random R to L order might be democratically fair to candidates, it makes it harder for voters faced with finding their chosen candidate on a list of 133 names. As almost any designer would tell you, it would be far better simply to rotate through the trusty A to Z from district to district. This would ensure that no one candidate benefited from being at the top of the list and also that no frustrated voter gave up on finding the name she was looking for.

Then there are the ballot’s myriad typographical missteps. Changes in typeface usually are a way of signifying meaning—this is a chapter title, this is for emphasis, this information is less important than that. Here, the “OFFICIAL BALLOT” headline, rendered in bold-faced capital letters, is followed by several lines of graphic schizophrenia: One line consists of condensed caps, the next of bolded lowercase, still another is shrunk to 9 point. One sample version of the Oct. 7 ballot uses 16 sizes and styles of type. Greater consistency of type would allow us to immediately pick out the words styled differently and grasp their significance.

No doubt some official in Sacramento thought that reproducing the candidates’ names in bolded capitals would make them stand out. But the treatment actually made the names hard to fit in the confined space of a ballot—and so each letter has had to be condensed (the typographic term for smooshed-together, thin letters). The result makes the names more difficult to read than they would be if they were simply in bold lowercase. What remains totally unclear is why the top quarter of the back of each ballot card is given over to a promotional tag line: I HAVE VOTED—HAVE YOU? This wastes valuable space, and the MEASURES SUBMITTED TO THE VOTERS section—in other words, propositions, bond measures, et cetera—is squeezed into a paltry 3-inches squared at the end of the ballot.

There’s no reason to assume that nothing can be done about such design problems in California and elsewhere. And in fact, a few reform-minded designers are already making the case that something should be. Marcia Lausen, a principal at Studio/lab in Chicago, has been thinking about problems of ballot design since 2000, when the American Institute of Graphic Arts launched a Design for Democracy initiative. The initiativeaimed to simplify the design of all government documents because, as AIGA Executive Director Ric Grefe argues, design is the bedrock of Jeffersonian democracy—it intermediates between information and understanding and makes the complex clear. Yet from census forms to Medicare guidelines, our nation’s paperwork is muddled with dense, irrational layouts.

Developed with a team of graphic and industrial designers, Lausen’s elections redesign proposal convinced the state of Illinois to change its election code to allow candidates’ names to be printed in lowercase, among other things. Oregon is implementing the group’s recommendations, and Lausen was just contacted for consultation by Texas. And this January the AIGA is publishing Election Design: Models for Improvement, a book of templates based on the principles of good typographic design.

Ballot A: Marcia Lausen, clear and simple

To give readers a sense of what this might mean, Slate asked a few professionals, including Lausen, to propose better ballots. Ballot A, created by Lausen, follows AIGA’s standards: a legible Univers font throughout; minimal point-size and weight (i.e., bold, condensed) changes; lowercase bolded candidate names; political affiliations and instructions clarified by distinct alignment. These very simple design changes make the ballot significantly easier to read.

Ballot B: Hugh Dubberly narrows the field

Hugh Dubberly, an interaction designer in San Francisco, simplified the type treatments, arrows, and boxes in his proposed Ballot B and also moved the column in which voters mark their choice to the left side of the page next to the candidate names, arguing that their proximity would minimize voting errors. He also proposed a somewhat radical solution to the 133-name-crunch problem by only printing the names of the serious candidates—the ones who’d participated in the final debate.

Ballot C: Sean Adams’ color-coded ballot

Like the other designers, the Los Angeles-based Sean Adams (a descendant of John as well as Thomas Jefferson) reined in the sample ballot’s typography to create Ballot C. He also focused on color—an election code no-no—as a way to clearly separate distinct categories of information like name and party affiliation. (Interestingly, the “I voted. Have you?” tagline almost works when it’s set in this more colorful layout.)

Of course, ballot design is but one part of the voting process. As our redesigners echoed, a pretty ballot won’t be terribly useful if the machines are faulty or the polling place is far away or the poll workers can’t find your name. The reality is that the whole voting experience could use a redesign. Election officials should spend some time at Starbucks, the company that turned an overpriced commodity into an empire by focusing on its customers’ experience. Imagine if all polling places had an inviting, recognizable logo; if they were well lighted and comfortable; if they offered an intuitive environment with clearly presented information. Maybe voters could get a free cup of coffee, too.

Correction, Oct. 7, 2003: The article originally misidentified Dade as the Florida county where the infamous butterfly ballot was employed in the 2000 presidential election. The ballot was used in Palm Beach County, not Miami-Dade County. (Return to the corrected paragraph.)