Democracy is a Design Problem: How Design Can Impact the Outcome of Elections

Insights from FirstMark’s Design Driven NYC, a monthly event and community that lives at the intersection of design, user experience, and technology. Design Driven highlights the stories behind the most interesting products and designers in the world. See all of our Design Driven talks here.

The individuals who design election ballots are often county election officials, who may be great public servants, but they are not trained designers. Design hasn’t been a high priority for voting systems throughout the years.

The Center for Civic Design, however, wants to change that with a goal to make every interaction between government and citizens easy, effective, and pleasant.

Dana Chisnell, co-director of the center, has spent more than 15 years studying where design, usability, and accessibility fit into the administration of elections. Her efforts include the creation of tools and best practices for local government officials, including field guides to ensuring voter intent.

In a talk at FirstMark’s Design Driven NYC, Chisnell explained how poorly designed ballots can have a dramatic effect on the democratic process — leading to frustrated voters, miscast votes, and overwhelmed poll workers. And even more dramatically, election outcomes — the will of the people — can be meaningfully altered by simple changes in graphic design and information architecture.

Below are three examples of bad design from real elections that Dana shared in her talk:

Miami-Dade County, Florida — 2000

The Florida election recount of 2000 is one of the most famous ballot design blunders. A Miami-Dade County official tried to assist the disproportionate number of older people in her area by increasing the type size on ballots. It was a well-meaning impulse and many designers would have done the same.

Unfortunately, changing the size of the type changed the layout of the ballot. Candidates names did not line up directly with the corresponding punch hole for casting a vote. And that created enough confusion that many people voted for the wrong candidate.

Sarasota County, Florida — 2006

No matter if it’s a paper ballot or an electronic screen, the best practice is to only present one contest per page. Sarasota County, however, presented several screens that included multiple races. That decision resulted in thousands of voters overlooking the contests. For example, a tightly contested House of Representatives race that was on the same page as the race for governor was missed by 13.9% or more than 18,000 voters. Typically, only 1% of voters miss a contest on a ballot.

New York — 2012

The size of the type on ballots is a persistent problem. Unlike Miami-Dade County’s decision to increase text size in 2000, New York chose in 2012 to shrink to an almost comical 6-point type. Voters had so much trouble reading ballots that election officials had to install magnifying glasses in the voting booths.

The problem originated from a need to provide materials in the Bengali language for the first time, bringing the total number of languages on the ballot to five (English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean, and Bengali) in some areas of Queens. To maintain uniformity, the election board chose to use the 6-point type across all ballots.

New York later corrected the issued by printing no more than three languages on any single ballot, which boosted the type size to 10 points.

Classic design problems

Splitting contests across columns, leaving disqualified candidates on the ballot and — for electronic ballots — placing different contests on the same touchscreen are common mistakes in ballot design.

But, there are also some frequent examples of just plain bad design in the world of ballots, such as type so small it’s unreadable. Avoiding these gaffes is good for every designer, not just election officials:

  • Inconsistency in format and style
  • Avoiding shading and bold text
  • Not writing short, simple instructions
  • Placing instructions or other critical information in an inconvenient location

10 simple design principles

So how do you address these challenges? Through extensive field research, Chisnell has identified critical election design techniques to ensure that votes are cast as intended. These practices have been adopted by election boards across the country. To offer a snapshot of these tactics, the Center for Civic Design boiled down about 300 pages of research into 10 principles that are cheap, legal and easy for election officials. The advice, however, is a great takeaway for all designers.

1. Use lowercase letters

2. Avoid centered text

3. Pick one sans-serif font

4. Use big enough type

5. Support process and navigation

6. Use clear, simple language

7. Use accurate instructional illustrations

8. Use informational icons (only)

9. Use contrast and color functionally

10. Decide what’s most important

“If we all did this every day we would have shiny, beautiful designs that people could use,” Chisnell said.

To hear more from Chisnell’s talk, “Democracy is a design problem: How changes in design change the outcome of elections,” see the full video below from FirstMark’s Design Driven NYC.

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