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Ballot Design Still Matters

…and it always will. Here’s even more proof, from a flawed ballot in King County, Washington State, that election officials should conduct simple usability testing on their ballots.

November 11, 2009
We’ve devoted a number of blog posts to the effects of poor ballot design, whether on touch-screens or paper ballots. In fact, we’ve collected a fairly large amount of data to make the case that bad design may be the single biggest cause of lost votes in recent elections.

Last week’s election presents more evidence, if any was needed, of the potentially disenfranchising effects of poor design. As a political blog in Seattle noted, a poorly-designed ballot probably caused as many as 40,000 King County voters to miss a property tax State Ballot Initiative.  As you can see from this picture of the ballot:


The contest was placed immediately below the instructions and to the left of all other contests—very easy for voters to miss. What can election officials do to avoid these kinds of mistakes in the future? Well, one thing is to use design checklists, like those provided by the Design for Democracy and the Brennan Center. But I’m not sure that in this case, either of those checklists would have alerted officials in King County to the problem. (While both checklists emphasize the importance of consistency in presentation—and having all contests except one to the right of the instructions is certainly inconsistent—I’m afraid this direction would have been too general to provide sufficient warning for many officials).

And while it’s easy, in retrospect, to say this problem should have been obvious, I don’t think that’s fair. Such problems are almost never obvious beforehand. Election officials and others working on forms are usually on tight deadlines, trying to get the ballots to fit into limited space and ensuring that everything and every name is correct. Even if they are only focused on how a design might confuse voters, they are often so familiar with the design that they’re blind to problems; for the very same reason that it’s often so difficult to spot one’s own typos.

What probably would have alerted officials to this problem ahead of time, and at little or no cost, would have been a simple usability test: observing ten or fifteen King County citizens as they “voted” on the ballot before the design was finalized. This solution is simple, easy and cheap. The Usability Professionals Association has a great explanation of how it’s done.

If county officials watched a dozen people fill out the ballot, at least a couple might have accidentally skipped the ballot initiative. And, with that, officials would have been alerted to the fact that their ballot contained a serious flaw.

The ballot eventually got it’s usability test, of course…but on Election Day. And approximately 40,000 voters showed—a little too late—that this particular ballot design failed.