Better Design, Better Elections

July 31, 2012

Design defects in ballots, voter instructions, and voting machines contributed to the loss of several hundred thousand votes in the most recent national elections. In addition, in the 2008 and 2010 general elections combined, as many as 400,000 people had their absentee or provisional ballot rejected because they made technical mistakes completing forms or preparing and returning the envelope. This comprehensive study outlines simple measures election officials can take before November to cure design defects and ensure every voter can cast a ballot that counts.

 

 

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Introduction

View Slideshow on Design Flaws and Solutions

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Key Points

American elections are marred by major design problems. As smartphones and computer tablets have convinced many people and businesses of the importance of good design and usability, elections have changed far more slowly.

  • Poor design increases the risk of lost or misrecorded votes among all voters, but the risk is even greater for particular groups, including low-income voters and the elderly.
  • As documented in this report, several hundred thousand votes were not counted in the 2008 and 2010 elections because of voter mistakes, in some cases affecting the outcome of critical contests.
  • The rise of absentee and provisional voting since 2000 has only increased the importance of design in elections. We estimate that in the 2008 and 2010 general elections combined, as many as 400,000 people had their absentee or provisional ballot rejected because they made technical mistakes completing the forms or preparing and returning the envelope.
  • There are simple measures election officials can take before November to cure design defects in ballots, voting machines, and voter instructions.
  • We encourage election officials to review lost vote data from previous elections, conduct usability tests, and work with experts to find design problems and solutions before this November’s election.

Introduction

Design problems continue to have a major impact on elections. In 2008, the Brennan Center for Justice publication Better Ballots documented how design errors continued to plague elections, leading to the loss of hundreds of thousands of votes. The report made several policy recommendations to alleviate this chronic problem.

This report continues the work of Better Ballots, detailing a few of the biggest design flaws in the elections of 2008 and 2010. Unlike Better Ballots, which only discussed Election Day ballots, this report also includes voting machine error messages, provisional and absentee ballot envelopes, and voter education materials. The quality of design of all of these materials can be the difference between counting and losing voters’ intended choices.

What has happened in the last four years? In the commercial context, a lot. In particular, smartphones and computer tablets have convinced many people and businesses of the significance of design and usability. More generally, as detailed on page 9 of this report, important segments of the private and public sectors are increasingly using design and usability research to improve the ability of customers to use their products.

Within elections there has been some progress, but there are still far too many flaws — mistakes that could easily be fixed before Election Day, saving hundreds of thousands of votes.

The Bad News: More Mistakes, More Lost Votes

Better Ballots examined 13 common ballot design problems. Despite the fact that these design flaws have been shown repeatedly to cause lost votes, many appeared on ballots again in 2008 and 2010.

The rise of absentee and provisional voting since 2000 has made ballot design in our elections even more important. A mistake or oversight in filling out an absentee ballot can be the difference between that ballot being counted or rejected in its entirety. We estimate that in the 2008 and 2010 general elections combined, as many as 400,000 people had their absentee or provisional ballot rejected because they made technical mistakes completing the forms or preparing and returning the envelope.

Poor design increases the risk for lost or misrecorded votes among all voters, but the risk is even greater for particular groups. Several studies have shown higher rates of lost or misrecorded votes in low-income and minority communities as well as for the elderly and the disabled; a number of these studies also show that improvements in voting equipment and ballot design result in substantial reductions in voting errors among these voters.

Some have dismissed the importance of usability in elections, arguing that voters only have themselves to blame if they fail to navigate design flaws. This misunderstands the purpose of elections. They are not a test of voters’ ability to follow confusing designs or complicated instructions; they are, instead, a mechanism by which voters express their preference for candidates and policies. No legitimate public purpose is served by designs that distort voters’ choices.

The Good News: Mistakes Can Be Fixed

Fortunately, the news is not all bad. In the last few years, there has been growing support for the technological, administrative, and legislative solutions recommended in Better Ballots. More advocates, election officials, voting system vendors, and legislators are focused on eliminating these problems.

Election officials in several jurisdictions have instituted a more rigorous design process, including consulting design experts and conducting usability testing. These measures have improved usability and saved many votes. Examples of election materials produced from this improved process are on pages 27, 31, 33, and 38.

Although the “big picture” solutions recommended in Better Ballots are necessary to finally cure the systemic problem of poor design, there is much that jurisdictions can do before November to avoid the pitfalls outlined in this report and Better Ballots. Importantly, these steps are relatively easy. There is ample knowledge and research on what is necessary for clear election design. Following the recommendations in these reports will ensure that ballots get counted and reflect what voters intend.

  • In June 2007, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) published Effective Designs for the Administration of Federal Elections. The report contains detailed guidelines and templates for election officials to design more usable election materials. The EAC report was prepared by Design for Democracy, an initiative of AIGA (the professional organization for design), which also published a book on effective ballot design.
  • In 2008, the Brookings Institution published Voting Technology: The Not-So-Simple Act of Casting a Ballot, which used empirical research to quantify voters’ reactions to different voting systems, including their ability to use these technologies to cast their intended choices accurately.
  • The Field Guides to Ensuring Voter Intent summarizes research by the EAC and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on ballot design, writing instructions, poll worker materials, and usability testing.
  • Better Ballots listed 13 frequent ballot problems and provided a checklist of best practices. A modified version of that checklist is reproduced at the front of this report on pages 10–11.

Additionally, the number of designers with expertise in the field is growing, and election officials are seeking their assistance. For example, Design for Democracy has worked on election materials in Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New York, Oregon, and Washington. Designers in Minnesota and New York have created election materials inspired by the Effective Designs guidelines. Usability in Civic Life (a project of the Usability Professionals Association) has worked on projects in California, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, and Ohio. Experts from all of these groups have made presentations at many conferences, from the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials, and Treasurers (IACREOT) to the National Association of Elected Officials (the Election Center).

In the next few weeks, election officials will design the ballots and election forms voters will use this November. This report provides officials with some simple steps to ensure that not only are voters’ voices heard, but that they are heard without distortion.


Better Design Better Elections Slideshow


Better Design, Better Elections