Civic Design

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Palm Beach Post Urges Counties to Make Ballots “Obsession” Based on Brennan Center Report

A Palm Beach Post editorial published this week urges Palm Beach County to “make ballots their obsession” in an effort to eliminate the problems that have plagued their recent elections history. Palm Beach County was the location of the infamous “butterfly ballot” in 2000. To avoid problems with the punch card ballot, their former elections chiefs ordered and maintained the connect-the-arrow system, on which voters make a greater number of errors, the Brennan Center Report (see post from July 28) shows. The Post calls the systems now in use less reliable, and the connect-the-arrow less intuitive.

They also recall the Sarasota County 2004 ballot, in which the 13thCongressional district was placed on the same touch screen as the much more visible race for governor. Many more voters failed to vote that race than in a neighboring county, where the race appeared on its own screen. The Post suggests that voters should not be blamed for this failure, because the Sarasota ballot was badly designed.

Although the governor banned electronic voting in the state, the Post notes that nothing has been done to "ban bad ballots.” The Post suggests that simply looking at the ballot from the perspective of a voter would have revealed these issues, and urges the state to place importance on ballot design.

The Post’s suggestion of “viewing the ballot as the voter would” is easily done by using the LEO testing kit. We urge all election officials in every state take some time to review their ballots using the LEO methods before election day.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

UPA member Chisnell receives commendation from San Francisco Board of Supervisors for work in plain language and voting

In a brief ceremony held yesterday in the gorgeous board chambers at San Francisco’s City Hall, UPA member Dana Chisnell was recognized by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors along with four others for work on the City’s Ballot Simplification Committee. Board president Aaron Peskin introduced the committee members during the Board’s regular meeting on Tuesday, saying “Now I’d like to recognize a group that is little known and rarely recognized by the public. The Ballot Simplification Committee writes the summary digests of measures for the Voter Information Pamphlets sent out to voters before each election. For the November election, there are 22 measures on the ballot, the most in San Francisco history. It seemed time to recognize the many hours these people put in to make voting more accessible to San Francisco citizens.”

As Peskin distributed gold-sealed certificates to the committee members, committee chair Betty Packard thanked the Board for the honor and for working with the committee to explain often-complex ballot propositions in simple but accurate language.

The committee was formed by a charter amendment in 1997. The five volunteer members, all communications professionals, work together during public hearings to develop objective, unbiased, plain language summaries 300 to 500 words in length for each measure to appear on the city-county ballot each election. There will have been 5 elections between November 2007 and November 2008 in San Francisco, with a total of 55 measures on the ballot. There will be 22 local measures on the November 2008 ballot.

From left: Chair Betty Packard, Anne Jorgensen, June Fraps, Dana Chisnell, and Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin

Photo (c) Bill Klenmens & Susan Becker

UPA member Dana Chisnell was nominated for the Ballot Simplification Committee by the Northern California Media Workers’ Guild and appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2005.

Her commendation from the board reads:

“For playing a vital role in informing San Francisco’s voters about local ballot measures, and for your outstanding endurance and patience in working to make complex legislation understandable to the general public, the Board of Supervisors extends its highest commendation.”


Ballot Simplification Committee

San Francisco City and County Voter Information Pamphlets

San Francisco Board of Supervisors

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Call to action: Volunteer to test or be a poll worker

Much of the content on this blog comes from people on the Usability Professionals' Association (UPA) Usability and Voting Project. We're gearing up now to help local elections officials test their ballots and other election materials for usability for the November election.

Ballots are being defined and designed now. Most have to be completed within a few weeks.

Want to help test ballots for usability? Step up! We'd love to have you. Questions? Write to us at

In the meantime, a few pointers about working on elections.

1. Usability and Voting is non-partisan
First, and most importantly, this is a non-partisan effort. Whatever our personal political beliefs, they stay separate from this work. You can read our ethics guidelines for usability and design professionals on

2. Sign up to be a poll worker
We know that it’s hard to find time to volunteer. But there is something that everyone in the US can do that takes just a day (or part of a day) of your time. Sign up to be a poll worker. With record turnout expected this November, new poll workers are needed more than ever to meet the target of 2 million poll workers set by the EAC. To find out how to be a poll worker, contact your local elections office or visit

3. Volunteer to help your local election officials with usability testing
One way to help ensure that ballots get a good usability test is to volunteer to run the test yourself. If you do:

  • Please use the LEO Usability Testing Kit. Every election official has received a printed copy of the report, and it would be useful especially in this first wave -- if we all used the materials they have already been introduced to, and spoke with one voice. Plus, your feedback will help improve the Kit.

  • Remember that election officials are in the middle of their busiest, highest pressure work period – final preparations for a highly volatile presidential election. This is a time to offer to help, not offer blame.

  • Don't be discouraged if they say "not this time" offer to contact them again in the spring for the off-season elections.

  • Before you make any recommendations, take a look at the EAC's Best Practices Guidelines for ballot designs as well as the recommendations in the Brennan Center report, Better Ballots. But, don't be surprised if you are told that it "can't be done". Not only do many voting systems have limitations that can get in the way, but elections are governed by state laws and regulations, as well as expectations from current practice. See and

4. Keep in touch
Let us know if you have any contacts with elections folks. We're trying to keep track of any usability work, so we can get a full picture of the impact of our efforts.

We'll be happy to talk to anyone who is interested, and support them in any way we can. Our goal is to make better design and usability part of every aspect of elections, integrated into the normal processes.

LEO Usability Testing Kit

Ethics guidelines for usability and design professionals working in elections

Information about being a poll worker

EAC Effective Polling Place Designs

EAC Election Management Guidelines

Brennan Center for Justice report Better Ballots

UPA’s Voting and Usability Project

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

It comes down to plain language

The ballot does not stand alone in its importance in an election. It is part – perhaps the center, but still only one part – of a larger “ecosystem” of an election that includes election materials like signs, notices, instructions, and information pamphlets.

This week I’ve been sitting as a member of the San Francisco Ballot Simplification Committee. Oddly, this city-chartered committee isn’t about simplifying ballots. But it does create election materials that complement the ballot: the committee writes digests of measures that are on the ballot. These digests, usually around 300-400 words long, are printed in a voter information pamphlet (VIP). The VIP is mailed to all active registered voters at least 30 days before Election Day.

The original legislation can be from 2 pages (for a voter initiative) to 300 pages (for a school district bond measure) long. Most voters won’t read that material, even though it is reasonably available. In San Francisco, voters have come to rely on the digests of the measures as a source of objective, unbiased, and plain explanations of the ballot propositions.

The basic skeleton is even simple. Each digest has 4 parts:

The way it is now
The proposal
A “yes” vote means
A “no” vote means

Using that outline, the 5 people on the committee work to capture the essence of each measure. See some examples here. A lot of what we do is translating. For example, today we worked on digests for three measures that if passed would change property and business taxes in the City. How do you talk about exemptions? We attempted to simplify to say who would and wouldn’t have to pay. Should we use the word “ceiling” or “limit” to talk about what defines the maximum revenue of a small business? (We chose “limit.”)

Though San Francisco is pretty progressive about drafting legislation that is accessible, terms of art (“budget set-aside”), domain jargon (can you say “total property tax increment funds”?), and purposeful obfuscation do creep in. Our goal is to create a text that is plain enough to understandable by the average 8th grader. Sometimes we succeed.

We’ll be done with the digests for November on Friday, August 8.

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