Civic Design

Friday, August 25, 2006

Common Ballot Usability Problems

While reading over the research I have gathered so far, I have come across a few sources from which I could extract some common usability problems with ballots. Here they are:

Bederson, et al. 2003, "Usability of large scale public systems: Electronic voting system usability issues."

  • Unable to mark properly
  • Unable to write in properly
  • Readability

    • Font size
    • Font design
    • Conspicuousness

  • Comprehensibility
  • Ability to associate a selection box, button, lever or punch hole with the right choice
    (This apparently happens on optical scan ballots, as well. See Alvarez, et al. 2006. The Complexity of the California Recall Election in which the authors discuss "vertical proximity" where names "neighboring" the most prominent candidates received a disproportionately large number of votes, suggesting that even "randomized" name order is not neutral and the effect is probably due to alignment problems -- all of which relates to the next two items.)
  • Order effects
  • Position effects
  • Cues important for reminding or decision making (e.g., political affiliation)
  • Voting instruction
  • Error prevention and correction
  • Diversity, e.g., language, disability
  • Image and icon design
  • Residual voting (failure to mark votes for candidates or issues)

Roth, Susan King. 1998 (reprint 2000). Disenfranchised by design: Voting systems and the election process. Information Design Journal 9,1,1-8
  • Ease of use
  • Accessibility
  • Effective communication of information on the ballot
  • Ability of the system to reduce voter error
  • Potential to reduce voting fall-off (undervoting)
  • Time to vote
  • “…context of use – it presents information used in decision-making, under the pressure of time, in a controlled environment.”


Alvarez, 2002. Ballot Design Options.

  • Amount of information (number of contests/issues) on one card/screen
  • Navigating through the online ballot
  • Difficulty getting an overview of the ballot and the voter’s choices

In addition, local elections officials I have talked with cite these issues as they review ballots and collect feedback from poll workers after election day:

  • Undervoting
  • Overvoting
  • Not voting both sides of an optical scan ballot
  • Font is too small (they provide magnifying glasses in the polling places)
  • Not knowing how to mark the ballot (voters fail to connect arrows, or circle names or mark with Xs rather than connecting the arrow or filling in the oval)
  • Erasing on a paper or optical scan ballot
  • Have difficulty finding candidates in rotation order
  • Writing in unqualified candidates
  • Marking a candidate and writing them in
  • Ranked choice (instant run-off) voting is problematic

The lists are similar, but what conclusions can we draw? And how can we solve these problems? I hope that upcoming research by Design for Democracy and other work sponsored by NIST will reveal solid answers.


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