Civic Design

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ballot Design Issue Causes Major Under-Vote in King Co. Washington

A blog post at  the blog published on November 11, 2009 brought attention to a surprising result on a ballot measure in King County's election held a week earlier.

David Goldstein of writes that, "forty-some thousand King County voters … were disenfranchised due to our state’s wholly inadequate ballot design and review procedures" because the ballot measure appeared on the ballot below the instructions in the left hand column.

It is a heavily researched and tested best practice in ballot design to put instructions for marking a printed optical scan ballot in the top left column on the first ballot page. Typically, this leaves a blank space beneath. Unfortunately, it's extremely tempting to fill that space, and election officials in King Co. did.

Although Washington State has been among the most progressive in implementing good ballot design practices, and in having local elections officials usability test ballots and other forms, King Co. tested after ballots had been sent out to voters. Their test revealed the problem that otherwise well-trained officials had missed, leaving them to expect a large under-vote on the measure. That’s exactly what happened. By the estimate of the state election director, Nick Handy, the undervote was somewhere nearer 50,000 votes.

The measure failed statewide by a large margin. If the measure had passed by 5,000 or so votes, this burp in King Co. would likely have tripped a recount because the 2-1 vote against in King Co. could have changed the result.

Goldstein of goes on to laud the Brennan Center's recommendation in their Better Ballots report that counties conduct usability testing before ballots are final using the guidelines and kit developed by UPA's Voting and Usability Project.


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