Chapter Oneballot design
A ballot is a sheet of paper, booklet, or electronic interface that lists the candidates running for office in an election. The most crucial of the objects encountered in the voting experience, the ballot is the tangible record of the voter's choices. Unfortunately, design flaws can cause the ballot to become a source of controversy and contention. A confusing ballot suggests a disorganized election agency and results in voter frustration. Election officials want ballots that provide clear information to avoid misunderstanding and mistrust on the part of their constituency. Voters want ballots that are easy to understand to be confident that they have cast their votes as intended.
No one wants a ballot to be poorly designed. Bad ballot design often results from good intentions. Theresa LePore, the election official responsible for the infamous November 2000 Palm Beach County ballot, thought she was making the names of the candidates easier to read by increasing the size of the type, a change that led to a confusing butterfly layout. The problem in Florida in 2000 was the same problem that exists today: Ballots need to be well designed, and an election official is not a designer.
Information design is an area of professional expertise concerned with the visual display of data and instructions. Many of the materials used in elections are rich in information: registration applications, ballots, administrative forms and envelopes, polling place signs, and instructional diagrams. The presentation of election information demands accuracy and usability. While design for other subjects or industries might consider point of view, creativity, and expression, design for elections requires neutrality, legibility, and access.
In the design of a ballot, many types of information must be presented: labels that specify the date and jurisdiction of the election, descriptions of the offices and issues to be decided, names of candidates and their representative political parties, procedures for handling the ballot and casting votes, and instructions on what to do if the voter makes a mistake or has a question.
Information design professionals are ideally suited to address ballot design and related challenges. They are skilled and experienced in working with complex data; employing systems of alignment, hierarchy, and navigation; and developing layouts and typographies that maximize information access and comprehension. As systematic and innovative thinkers, they have the analytical skills to clarify information and the creative vision to see it in new ways. By adding information design expertise to election administration, ballots and supporting election materials will be made clearer and easier to use, elections will be more efficient, and voter confidence will increase.
ballot design case study
Many ballot design problems derive from the simple fact that U.S. elections are complicated. The tendency of our political system to put many candidates and issues before the electorate can create a burden for voters and election administrators. For example, in November 2003 there were 133 candidates in the California gubernatorial race. While this seems extreme, it is not the first occurrence of a ballot of this length. In a 1969 primary election in Los Angeles, voters were asked to distribute seven votes among 133 candidates for Junior College Board of Trustees. Similarly, judicial elections held in urban jurisdictions with large court systems can result in long, complex ballots.
In November 2000 the Chicago/Cook County judicial retention ballot reached an all-time high in its level of complexity. With 73 candidates, this ballot section was compressed into a confusing butterfly layout that spanned ten pages of a dense punchcard ballot. Four of the ten pages are shown below.
On the facing page is a two-page spread from the judicial retention section of the November 2000 Chicago/Cook County ballot. Here, in an extremely confusing array of information, the yes and no votes for the candidates on the left-hand page are actually interlaced with the yes and no votes for the candidates on the right-hand page. Moreover, the introduction of a reconfigured punchcard to accommodate more candidates resulted in punch holes that are squeezed much closer together than in previous elections.
In a retention election, the ballot identifies the judge and the relevant district and asks for each candidate "Shall [the candidate] be retained in office as judge of the [relevant court]?" Compounding the confusion on the ballot shown here is the inclusion of this text in a second language. The addition of Spanish was necessary to comply with federal election requirements, but in combination with the large number of candidates, it created space constraints that led to the adoption of the complex butterfly ballot layout.
The proposed redesign of the Chicago/Cook County judicial retention ballot (facing page) solves many of the original ballot's legibility problems. By changing only the design-not the printing specifications (black ink only) or the voting system (punchcard)-the redesign greatly clarifies the information.
Here, the repetitive language is removed, voter instructions are placed in a designated area, and the interlacing of yes and no votes for different candidates is eliminated. Candidate names are presented in a larger, bolder, more legible typeface (Univers 65). The yes and no votes for each candidate are tightly grouped, and graphic devices and shading connect the names with their corresponding punch holes. These features are also employed on prior ballot pages, shown below, on which the butterfly layout is used to group candidates by contest. The purposeful use of both the left- and right-hand pages prepares voters for left-right voting before arriving at the dense judicial retention pages.
On the facing page is the actual ballot used in the November 2002 Chicago/Cook County retention election. This ballot layout utilized many of the recommendations of the proposal. The names of the candidates are set in large bold upper- and lowercase letters, emphasizing them as the most important information on the page; the question of retention is asked only once per page in each language; and the graphic devices are used to group the yes and no options for each candidate. Opting to avoid the butterfly layout entirely, the names are placed on a single side of the punch holes. In this arrangement the action of voting is consistent from left to right throughout the ballot, but as a trade-off, the information in this section is uncomfortably dense. Statistical analysis of the numbers of retention votes cast in recent Cook County elections documents the success of the improved design, even while retaining the denser punchcard.
ballot design principles
While the preceding case study focuses on a highly dense punchcard ballot, similar design principles apply to all ballot types. Design improvements can be made regardless of ballot complexity or voting system technology: punchcard, optical scan, direct recording electronic, paper, or lever.
Additional improvements can be achieved with design refinements that result from usability testing. For example, it was discovered through observational research that instructions placed in the first column of a multiple-column optical scan ballot (shown on the facing page), rather than placed across the top of all columns, increased the likelihood that voters would read the instructions.
Illustrated on the following pages are five basic principles of ballot design. By developing and testing ballot layouts that adhere to these principles, clarity and legibility can be significantly improved.
The five principles of ballot design for all ballot types:
-> Use lowercase letters for greater legibility
-> Understand and assign information hierarchy
-> Keep type font, size, weight, and width variations to a minimum
-> Do not center-align type
-> Use shading and graphic devices to support hierarchy and aid legibility
One of the most common errors in ballot design is the overuse of capital letters. This is especially problematic with candidate names, which need to be the clearest, most accessible information on the ballot. Unlike the simple rectangles formed by groups of all capital letters, groups of lowercase letters form distinctive silhouettes. Ascenders (strokes that extend above the standard height of lowercase letters) and descenders (strokes that extend below the baseline) provide visual clues and help readers to more quickly and accurately identify words.
The decision to use all capital letters for candidate names is often made with the intent of signifying importance. However, there are better ways to achieve this. In the redesign of the Chicago/Cook County ballot, larger and bolder type was used to place greater emphasis on candidate names.
When presenting information, the use of different weights and sizes of type should establish a clear and manageable hierarchy. Type variations must be carefully considered. Too much variation and the hierarchy is lost. Emphasis on the wrong information and the hierarchy is incorrect.
Before the redesign (facing page, left), the most prominent information on the ballot was the grouping of yes/no options with the corresponding arrows and punch numbers. Unquestionably this information is important, but is it more important than the names of the candidates? The yes/no options are repetitive information, easily accessed and understood by the voter. The unique names of the candidates should be the most prominent information on the ballot.
The proposed redesign (facing page, right) clearly establishes the candidate names as the first priority. information hierarchy
Recommended typographic hierarchy for all ballot types:
1. Candidate names
2. Ballot-marking device (arrows and punch numbers, optical scan ovals or arrows, etc.)
3. Candidate party or professional affiliation (if applicable)
4. Instructions, headings, and all required and/or repetitive information
The original Chicago/Cook County retention ballot had five variations in the size, weight, and width of type. At left, in order of descending visual importance: 1] very bold, very large, all caps for yes/no and punch numbers; 2] medium weight, large, all caps, condensed for candidate names; 3] medium weight, extended, all caps for ballot page heading, with lighter-weight version of the same style for the second language; 4] light weight, all caps for title of the office within the retention question; 5] light weight, lowercase for the remainder of the question. This is a confusing and unnecessary amount of variation. In ballot design a change of typographic style should always indicate a change in meaning.
As shown below, the redesign limited typographic variation to two sizes and two weights. At the first level of importance is the name of the candidate and the punch number. At the second level are headings and instructions. A lighter weight of the secondary type size is used for the second language.
We read from left to right. From the end of one line to the beginning of the next, our eye seeks the place to begin again. Flush left (asymmetrical) alignment is simple, practical, and highly legible. Centered (symmetrical) alignment is complex, decorative, and more demanding to read. In center-aligned typography the placement of the beginning of each line is inconsistent and unpredictable. There is very little practical use for centered typography, and no need whatsoever for centered type in election design.
The principle of asymmetrical alignment is demonstrated below in the redesign of the Yamhill County, Oregon, ballot heading, which also uses lowercase letters to increase legibility. In the improved version there are only two type sizes. The information determined to be most important, the name of the county, is set in bold. Secondary information, the election type and date, is set in a lighter weight of the same size. The ballot style, of least importance to the voter, is set in a significantly smaller size.
contrast + graphics
Contrast can aid legibility and support hierarchy. Black type on a white background or white type on a black background provides the highest possible and most legible visual contrast. The names of candidates should always be displayed in black type on a white background. Alternate forms of contrast can be used to distinguish headings and instructions. On the facing page, a heading appears in reverse form-white letters on black-and on-ballot instructions appear on a light gray background.
Additionally, in the proposed Chicago/Cook County ballot redesign, a graphic device surrounds the candidate names and party affiliations. Shown below, this device visually groups the candidates and their parties and directs the voter's attention toward each corresponding arrow and punch number. When using graphic devices (lines separating candidates and sections, warning icons, ballot-marking devices, etc.) it is important that they be simple and functional-never decorative.
ballot design examples
There are five basic types of voting systems currently in use in the United States: optical scan, direct recording electronic (DRE), punchcard, paper, and lever. While punchcard, paper, and lever systems are still in use in some areas, most states and counties have by now adopted optical scan or DRE technologies. The federal government has assisted in this transition through the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002. Enacted in response to the controversies surrounding the 2000 presidential election, HAVA provides federal payments to states to update voting systems. HAVA also established the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), which is responsible for disbursing HAVA funds and for various informational and administrative tasks pertaining to federal elections.
Design for Democracy has worked with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, election offices in Chicago and Cook County (Illinois) and the state of Oregon, and voters' rights groups and election consultants to develop actual and prototypical ballot designs in both print and electronic media. The group will establish universal models and best-practices guidelines for optical scan and DRE ballot design for the EAC in 2007.
The following pages present current examples of Design for Democracy work for optical scan and DRE ballots. These examples apply the same design principles described on previous pages: the use of legible lowercase letters; a clearly established information hierarchy; minimal variation in type size, weight, and width; asymmetrical alignment; and strategic use of contrast and graphics. Design for Democracy encourages the adaptation of these examples for use by other election jurisdictions.
Optical scan voting systems are highly reliable and widely used. They require the voter to indicate selections by physically marking on a paper ballot. After the ballot is complete, it is inserted into a ballot counting machine, which records the votes.
Many states and counties receiving HAVA funds decided in favor of optical scan voting rather than the still-controversial DRE technologies. Voting by optical scan is intuitive and familiar. The act of filling in an oval shape or completing an arrow is much like that of completing a standardized test. In optical scan voting there is a low percentage of unrecorded votes. Voting errors-most often incorrect ballot markings-are quickly and easily detected by visual inspection or by the ballot counting machine.
The success of optical scan voting can be supported by providing clear and simple voting instructions directly on the ballot and on signs in the polling place. Also, sample ballots and voting instructions can be distributed prior to election day, both online and by mail.
There are a number of optical scan voting system vendors, each with specific features and requirements that affect the design of the ballot. These include the dimensions of the page; the number, length and width of the columns; the ability to print on one or both sides; the choice of typeface; and the nature and position of the marking device. When developing the design of an optical scan ballot, it is crucial to communicate and cooperate with election officials and with the voting system vendor.