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.
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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.