Civic Design

Monday, March 07, 2011

Why is it so hard to produce a usable, well-designed ballot?

This form changed the world.
Miami-Dade presidential ballot from 2000, the "butterfly ballot"

The picture is of the so-called "butterfly ballot" from Miami-Dade County from the presidential election in 2000. It is called a "butterfly ballot" because of how the candidates for this office flow over onto the second page of a two-page spread. The designer of this  punch card ballot wanted to make the type large enough for her overwhelmingly older voting constituency. This caused the contest to flow to two pages. That caused the candidates to interlace across the two-page spread. The holes are meant for every other one to the left or every other one to the right. There are horizontal rules to call out the candidate pairs and arrows to point to the holes. If you use trifocals, and you're in a garage with bad lighting, or a high school gym where there's a lot of glare on the page, how might the alignment go for you? Also, it isn't hard to imagine a voter poking the first hole for the first candidate on the left. Then you must poke the second hole for the second candidate - right?

This intentional-but-ill-informed design caused people to vote in ways they had not intended. It caused enough voters to make mistakes that it changed the outcome of a federal election. Which, because this election happened in the US and it was to elect the president, changed the world. This is not unlike the butterfly of the Chaos Theory.

Democracy is a design problem

Whenever I tell people that I work in voting and election design, I get two questions. The first is, So, is there money to be made there? (No.) The second question is, Why is this so complicated?

The people who ask the second question usually have an answer to offer me, already. The solution, they say, is that there should be one voting system for the whole country. This would impose consistency that could be supported with standards, testing, and enforcement. But it isn't that simple.

By tradition, running elections falls to the states and counties by virtue of the 10th amendment to the US Constituion, which says that anything that isn't covered in the Constitution falls to the people. It is considered a "states' rights" issue. All the Constitution says about elections is that there will be such to elect people to offices. Later amendments say who can vote (15th - barring discrimination based on race or color; 19th - womens' suffrage; 24th - eliminating the requirement to have paid income taxes; 26th - establishing 18 years as the legal voting age). Nothing says anything about who determines what system to use. It falls to the states.

The multiplicity of voting systems is just one tiny slice of this wicked problem. As with other design problems, there are constraints. In the case of ballot design, there are several that interact: 
  • Voting technology is a moving target, so standards and best practices always lag. 

  • Election management systems are reprehensibly difficult to use. EMSs, into which databases of candidate filings and questions or measures must be poured to make ballots are so difficult that many county election officials just send their databases in to their voting system vendors to do the ballot layouts for them. 

  • Design specifications and language for instructions are embedded in county and state election legislation. Type font, weight, and size, grid, and position of instructions are often specified in state election code. Election regulations also often include the exact wording of instructions. It's not uncommon for the instructions to have been written generations ago, in negative, threatening, passive voice. 

  • Election directors are excellent public administrators but they're not trained designers. In most of the 3,000 or so counties in the US, the people who run elections are county clerks or registrars who handle vital records such as birth certificates. Most are women, who, on average have held that job for 20 years. They usually are not tech savants, but they don't fear tech, either. They are busy, burdened, and budgetless. Elections have become more and more complicated to administer. Even if they could use InDesign to lay out their ballots, they're not trained designers. For many, a "usable" ballot is one that can be counted accurately by the voting system. And they want to keep costs as low as possible. Printing, mailing, upgrades, bug fixing, translations, storage -- all this costs money. 

  • Ballot templates are issued at the state level. It is typical for the secretary of state, as the head of elections, to issue what's called a "ballot template" for state and federal elections. These also come from people who aren't trained designers and don't take into account the things that can happen when county and municipal contests are added to the ballot. They might not make room for multiple languages. They rarely put ballots through usability testing before live testing on Election Day. 

  • Municipal and county districts overlap to create what are called "ballot styles." For example, there are places in Washington State where you could possibly have a unique ballot. There -- as in many voting jurisdictions throughout the US -- many lower level contests are included in the ballot, from school board to cemetery commission. The boundaries for those districts have been drawn in dozens of different ways. The right combination could draw a circle around your house. And yet, the county election official must ensure that you get to vote on exactly the contests you are entitled to. For this reason, some counties end up generating hundreds of ballot styles as different levels of districts overlap.

Poor ballot design affects the outcome of elections

When ballots are badly designed, voters get frustrated. People lose confidence in elections. Supporting elections on Election Day becomes difficult for poll workers.

All voters are affected by poor ballot designs. Older voters, first time voters, some minorities, and voters who have less education are very likely to make mistakes that prevent them from voting as they intend. Even white, wealthy, educated voters make mistakes on ballots. That's what happened in 2000. 

Although the butterfly ballot became the emblem for bad ballot design, we continue to see ballot design problems, both in paper ballots and on electronic touch screen systems. Technology has introduced more design problems. It has not solved them.

Voting: the 233-year-old design problem
There are best practice guidelines, commissioned by the US Election Assistance Commission from AIGA's Design for Democracy project, that are evidence-based. Voting system manufacturers are gradually supporting more and more of the guidelines, as local election officials demand it. States are updating election code to loosen design requirements. Local election officials embrace these changes. Although change can be difficult, these particular changes can make the jobs of local election officials easier because the voter's franchise is more likely to be protected with every design improvement.

Design can change the world. This is our superpower. We can affect the accuracy and accessibility of elections. But there aren't nearly enough people who are interested in civic design. Join the movement at the most important panel in the Free World, at South by Southwest in Austin on Monday, March 14 at 3:30 Central time. (Follow #uxvote on Twitter.) There we'll have on hand Dana Debeauvoir, county clerk from Travis County, Texas with Ric Grefe, the executive director of AIGA and the Design for Democracy project, along with Larry Norden, a civil rights lawyer and senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. I'll be moderating. See you there. And at poll worker training for the next election.

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