Art? Bad Design? A Vote for Senate?

December 19, 2008

ballot?Jackson Pollock? Perhaps Brice Marden? Afraid not. Unfortunately, those frenetic abstract gestures to the right were made by a Minnesota voter on a ballot rather than a canvas (click image to see ballot).

The Senate contest between Al Franken (D) and Norm Coleman (R) is still undecided, as the recount has now stretched well into holiday shopping season (the widget posted below should provide the most up-to-date tally). Interestingly, a number of media outlets have posted features on their sites that allow anyone to examine all the contested ballots. The first time I scrolled through the Star Tribunes' version, "Ballot Challenge," one thing quickly became clear: usability, the ease at which voters are able to correctly navigate and mark a ballot, appeared to be a significant issue for some voters. As a result, there's a chance their vote won't count in a race that could very well be decided by a handful of votes.

This morning, I turned to Dana Chisnell, a researcher who studies "how people interact with technology specializing in design for older adults, ballot usability, and plain language," for insight as to why some of these challenged ballots have been miss marked, mangled, and must now go before a canvassing board to be interpreted. The analysis below is by no means exhaustive, but merely a sampling of her genius. For more on her work, click here to read her postings on the Usability Professional's Association blog.

The ballots we discussed can be found on the Minnesota Public Radios feature, here. Click on the ballots to see them larger.


Design Related

As we discussed in our study, Better Ballots, simple design flaws can lead to confusion and mistakes in the voting booth. For instance:

ballot DC: "Where the bubbles are very light gray, people may not even see them, especially older adults and others who have low vision."

"Where the bubbles are far away from the candidates' names, it is much more likely that the voter will have marked two bubbles or made a mark that might look like a range-finder and then mark the 'right' bubble, or they just do something else."


Instruction Related

Also examined in Better Ballots, confusing and poorly written instructions will lead to confusion and mistakes in the voting booth:

ballotDC: "Writing-in is a classic problem. If the instructions were closer to the races, and they were in plain language, it is possible that the voter might have marked the ballot correctly. Here, you could imagine any number of reasons someone might write in a candidate in the wrong contest. Plain language instructions might have helped."

"Stray marks also present a problem. That classic instruction about 'distinguishing marks' is mysterious and confusing but doesn't have to be. In instances like this, it is unclear if voters even know that they can get a replacement ballot if they make a mistake."


In Closing

DC: "In conducting usability tests of various ballot designs—watching voters vote—I am constantly surprised how difficult it is for voters to mark a ballot correctly. Even the most educated, most experienced voters make mistakes. Better ballot design, plain language instructions, and usability testing a close-to-final ballot could help local elections officials help voters vote accurately."

TPK: Let's keep up the good fight!