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Ballot Design

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Jessie Scanlon has a great article about ballot design.

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.

. . .

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.

This highlights the odd tension that can sometimes arise between clarity and a preconceived notion of “fairness.” For example, Scanlon writes about the practice of putting candidates’ names in a randomized order:

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.

The intriguing thing to me is that in general, most people have no idea what constitutes decent (forget about good) graphic design. I can’t count the number of church bulletins, advertising flyers, and websites (many of them even “professionally designed”) which are virtually illegible because they violate every principle of clean, clear design.

Don’t get me wrong – some things in the world of advertising aren’t meant to be clear (some other concern, perhaps the relative “coolness” of the design, may be deemed more important). But if the goal is to provide a voter (or a reader) with an intuitive interface, the process can’t begin with the notion that it isn’t “fair” for somebody’s name to appear at the end of the ballot all the time or anything else. It should begin with a very simple point: design a clear, easily navigated interface. Then – and only then – should the design be modified to address any concerns about unfairly accentuating certain things.

For example, Scanlon asked a variety of graphic designers to develop a model ballot. One of them features color changes to deliniate different information. Scanlon says this is an “election code no-no.” Why? Arguably because someone, sometime, decided that color “just shouldn’t” be included in a ballot without any recognition that color can play an exceptionally good role in presenting information.

Anyway, I think the way ballots are designed should be taken out of the hands of the lawyers and put into the hands of people who actually understand how information is disseminated. Sure, concerns of “fairness” would need to be incorporated into the design. But ultimately, if the goal really is to have voters understand what they’re looking at, the design is going to be more important than the machine.

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About Bill Wallo

  • Eric Olsen

    Great job, very interesting and obviously important.