Ballot Design Still Matters

We've devoted a number of blog

posts to the effects of poor ballot

design,

whether on touch-screens or paper ballots. In fact, we've collected a fairly large amount of data to make the case that

bad design may be the single biggest cause of lost votes in recent elections.

Last week's election presents

more evidence, if any was needed, of the potentially disenfranchising effects of

poor design. As a political blog in Seattle noted, a poorly-designed ballot probably caused as many as

40,000 King County voters to miss a property tax State Ballot Initiative.

As you can see from this picture of the ballot:

The contest was placed

immediately below the instructions and to the left of all other contests -- very easy for voters to miss. What can

election officials do to avoid these kinds of mistakes in the future? Well, one thing is to use design checklists, like those provided by the Design

for Democracy and the Brennan Center. But I'm not sure that in this case, either of those checklists would have

alerted officials in King County to the problem. (While both checklists emphasize

the importance of consistency in presentation -- and having all contests except

one to the right of the instructions is certainly inconsistent -- I'm

afraid this direction would have been too general to provide sufficient warning

for many officials).

And while it's easy, in retrospect, to say this

problem should have been obvious, I don't think that's fair. Such

problems are almost never obvious beforehand. Election officials and

others working on forms are usually on tight deadlines, trying to get

the ballots to fit into limited space and ensuring that everything and every

name is correct. Even if they are only focused on how a design

might confuse voters, they are often so familiar with the design that they're blind to problems; for the very same reason that it's often so difficult to

spot one's own typos.

What probably would have alerted

officials to this problem ahead of time, and at little or no cost, would have

been a simple usability test: observing ten or fifteen King County citizens as

they "voted" on the ballot before the design was

finalized. This solution is simple, easy and cheap. The Usability Professionals

Association has a great explanation of how it's done.

If county officials watched a dozen people fill out

the ballot, at least a couple might have accidentally skipped the

ballot initiative. And, with that, officials would have been alerted to

the fact that their ballot contained a serious flaw.

The ballot eventually got it's

usability test, of course...but on Election Day. And

approximately 40,000 voters showed -- a little too late -- that this particular ballot

design failed.