Civic Design

Monday, November 30, 2009

Top 10 guidelines for creating a plain language ballot

In June 2009, Ginny Redish and Dana Chisnell presented the findings from research they did for NIST on the language of instructions on ballots at the Usability Professionals' Association conference. In addition to their many fascinating findings, they distributed a handout with quick tips for creating and presenting plain language instructions for ballots. Here they are: 

What to say and where to say it

1. At the beginning of the ballot, explain how to vote, how to change a vote, and that voters may write in a candidate.

2. Put instructions where voters need them. For example, save the instructions on how to use the write-in page for the write-in page.

3. Include information that will prevent voters from making errors, such as a caution to not write in someone who is already on the ballot.

How to say it

4. Write short sentences.

5. Use short, simple, everyday words. For example, do not use "retention" and "retain." Use "keep" instead. For another example, use "for" and "against" for amendments and measures rather than "accept" and "reject."

6. Write in the active voice, where the person doing the action comes before the verb.

7. Write in the positive. Tell people what to do rather than what not to do.

8. When giving people instructions that are more than one step, give each step as an item in a numbered list. Do not number other instructions. When the instructions are not sequential steps, use separate paragraphs with bold beginnings instead of numbering.

What to make it look like

9. Keep paragraphs short. A one-sentence paragraph is fine.

10. Separate paragraphs by a space so each paragraph stands out on the page.

- From Redish, Chisnell, Newby, Laskowski, and Lowry, Use of Language in Ballot Instructions, NIST IR 7556.

To see all 28 guidelines, go to The guidelines are the last appendix in the report, pages 189-190. 

Labels: , , ,

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.