Civic Design

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Voting and cognitive disabilities

Today the New York Times published an article by Pam Belluck, "States Face Decisions on Who Is Mentally Fit to Vote" citing actions taken by elections officials in Rhode Island to stop people who live in mental hospitals from voting.

The article refers to recommendations for national standards related to allowing people with cognitive disabilities to be made by the American Bar Association's Commission on Law and Aging. These proposed standards were developed at a symposium I was at in March. The consensus of the symposium was that people be prevented from voting only if they cannot indicate, with or without help, “a specific desire to participate in the voting process.”

State officials are concerned with enforcement of old laws that bar people with mental disabilities from voting as "idiots" or "insane." Others are concerned that voters with cognitive disabilities are being coerced or worse, that someone else is voting for them in a way they would not have intended.

What does this have to do with ballot design?
The ABA recommendation makes the ballot (and the voting system overall) the test of whether someone can vote. That is, if a registered voter expresses the desire to vote and is able to mark and cast a ballot (with or without help), she can vote. If she spoils the ballot in the attempt to vote, there's no harm done to her or to the electoral system.

Using plain language in clear instructions along with best practices in visual and graphic design all voters benefit. People with cognitive disabilities (and let us not forget that some large number of Baby Boomers are going to end up with some level of dementia) will be able to cast a secure, private ballot that they feel confident about.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Guidance on language on ballots

When I was in Olympia and Spokane talking with local election officials in May 2007, I heard a lot of concern about the wording of instructions and measures.

Instruction language is often controllable locally

While statutes or regulations may specify certain types of instructions that you must include on a ballot, often the wording is not constrained. Measures are a different story.

Guidelines exist!

There are some basic guidelines, for language on ballots, most recently a set by NIST ‘authored by Ginny Redish.

Using best practices drawn from several disciplines related to writing instructions, the Ginny reviewed 100+ paper ballots from all
U.S. states and Washington, D.C. covering three different elections, along with sample ballots on three DREs. On the DREs Ginny also reviewed navigation instructions and information and error messages.

Nearly all the ballots reviewed violated some best practices. Just some of the 20 practices that ballots are not following include using familiar common words, using short sentences, putting instructions in logical order, telling people about consequences before they act, and explaining the context before telling people what to do.

Download the two NIST documents on ballot language
. Use the guidelines on your ballots. And tell us how well your ballots do in usability tests.