Civic Design

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

What local elections officials control on ballots

On August 7, 2006, I met with two people from the San Francisco Department of Elections to learn about the ballot design process. Barbara Carr, who is a clerk in the department, sees the ballot and the Voter Information Pamphlet (VIP) through the entire process from gathering information for the pieces at filing time all the way through printing and distribution. Linda Tulett is the deputy director of elections.

San Francisco uses arrow-connecting optical scan ballots in ES&S Eagle machines for regular and absentee ballots. The City uses oval fill-in optical scan ballots with an AUTOmark machine for HAVA compliance.

I had worked with Barbara in my role as a member of San Francisco's Ballot Simplification Committee.


Constraints from the state
Before our meeting, Barbara had pointed me to the sections of California state elections code that guide (and often constrain) the design and instructions on the ballot. (See Division 13 in the code.) In my light review of the code, I could see that there were some strange and interesting design constraints dictated. For example,
...immediately to the right of and on the same line as the
name of the candidate, or immediately below the name, if there is not
sufficient space to the right of the name, there shall be printed in
eight-point roman lowercase type the name of the qualified political
party with which the candidate is affiliated.
Emphasis mine.


The code goes on to allow three words to describe a candidate's "designation" such as a current office held or other role. There are several paragraphs on what constitutes a "word" in this case. For example, if the candidate wants to include a place name that is made up of two words (such as San Francisco), that counts only as one word.

These are just two examples of the type of specificity of the elections code. I was surprised that the state elections code dictates items to this level of detail, but have learned that this is true in most other states.

Constraints from the City
From the City are ordinances that cover what languages must be on the ballot, in what order. In San Francisco, there are three languages on most ballots: English, Spanish, and Chinese. All primary ballots must have at least two languages, so they are set up to be English/Spanish and English/Chinese.

When Barbara, Linda and I talked about type size, layout and order, Barbara and Linda talked about some of the trade-offs between ease-of-reading and budget concerns. If you have larger type, the ballot may flow over to more cards. The more ballot cards you have, the more it costs to print, to mail to absentee voters, and to create provisional ballots that may not be used.

There are many other local ordinances that constrain control of design of ballots, as well.


Constraints from the voting machine manufacturer
To ensure that the ballot cards are properly scanned, there must be tracking blocks at the edges to tell the scanner which end is up and what ballot card is going through. This takes up space, but generally wasn't a concern.

I was interested to find out that the City doesn't have the ballot layout software and that someone from the voting machine manufacturer lays out the ballot. Usually that person is doing that work outside the Department offices, but sometimes -- usually depending on how close to deadline time it is -- the vendor is on site at City Hall.

I suppose that the logic is that having the expert -- someone from the manufacturer -- doing the layout ensures that the process is quicker and less likely to introduce errors than if someone in the Department did the work. Learning this left me wondering though if there were things that could be done with the ballot layout software that the people in the Department didn't know about:
  • Could the instructions be positioned differently?
  • Could the contests be grouped differently visually?
  • Could there be more images that might help reading-disabled voters?

Etc.


What the process looks like
Out of that interview, along with some helpful materials that Barbara gave me, I drafted a process flow diagram for the ballot design process. Try double-clicking the image below to see a larger version; if you want a better copy, email me. I have sent it back to Barbara for her to review. It includes the timing in the election cycle for the major steps.



It was interesting to me that "usable" to Barbara and Linda, the local elections officials, meant that the ballot met all of the legal requirements and had nothing to do with how well it might support carrying out the voter's intent.


The good news: The wording of the instructions isn't constrained
As far as Barbara and Linda could find in the code and ordinances that they have to check the ballots and VIP against, the wording of instructions can say anything they feel is appropriate. That is, that wording isn't dictated by any rules they have to follow. They were interested in doing what they could to improve instructions on ballots and liked the idea that there might someday be research to support the decisions they make about how instructions are worded.


2 Comments:

  • We have some experience trying to create a ballot on two different machines. The process one one of them took 3 weeks to learn the four software applications, and that was with constant interaction with the vendor. (As a result, we didn't even try to learn hte other one.) Its certainly not a process for the faint of heart, but I don't think thre's any reason for it either. The products lack a user interface (unless you're a software developer). And contain too many nuiances from the particular development team. But even after we learned the process, the restrictions imposed by the software was so significant that we really were precluded from doing a number of things that we are pretty sure would have been improvements from a usability perspective.

    I also visted Alameda County and saw their process. They DO produce they own ballot layouts using a young kid with good computer skills (but not a programmer). However, its a cookie cutter process - a standard tempalte with little flexability.

    By Blogger Bill Killam, At 7:18 AM  

  • We have some experience trying to create a ballot on two different machines. The process one one of them took 3 weeks to learn the four software applications, and that was with constant interaction with the vendor. (As a result, we didn't even try to learn hte other one.) Its certainly not a process for the faint of heart, but I don't think thre's any reason for it either. The products lack a user interface (unless you're a software developer). And contain too many nuiances from the particular development team. But even after we learned the process, the restrictions imposed by the software was so significant that we really were precluded from doing a number of things that we are pretty sure would have been improvements from a usability perspective.

    I also visted Alameda County and saw their process. They DO produce they own ballot layouts using a young kid with good computer skills (but not a programmer). However, its a cookie cutter process - a standard tempalte with little flexability.

    By Blogger Bill Killam, At 7:18 AM  

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