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Ballot Design Guidance for Election Officials

Following a set of design processes, rather than adhering to rigid rules, can help election officials design voter-friendly ballots for every election.

Published: February 3, 2020

Voters need sample ballots to prepare for an elec­tion.

At the very least, require that county elec­tion offi­cials make sample ballots publicly avail­able on their websites. Sample ballots should also be mailed to voters in advance of early voting. Many states currently do not require the release of sample ballots, putting the onus on voters to request them. foot­note1_x71merr 1 For example, South Caro­lina only requires that sample ballots be posted in the polling place on Elec­tion Day. See South Car. Stat. § 7–13–1740.

There should be a public review process for ballots in every elec­tion.

Require that sample ballots be avail­able for review by candid­ates and local advocacy groups. Some states do not require offi­cials to post sample ballots for public review at all, instead permit­ting elec­tion work­ers to mail sample ballots to voters just a few days before an elec­tion, when it is too late to alter a confus­ing or unfair layout. foot­note2_8jxucck 2 For example, in Flor­ida sample ballots need only be mailed or e-mailed to voters seven days before an elec­tion, or they can be published in a news­pa­per at some point before Elec­tion Day. See Fla. Stat. § 101.20.

States should provide flex­ible ballot-design stand­ards, not rigid rules.

Provide layout guides, includ­ing visual examples, to local offi­cials who design ballots. Require that these guides to creat­ing user-friendly ballots be avail­able on the secret­ary of state’s and county elec­tion offi­cials’ websites and that the public be permit­ted to submit comments on them before they are final­ized. foot­note3_iggb10i 3 For instance, Virginia provides a clear docu­ment with visual examples and keys to indic­ate with stand­ards are required and which are best prac­tices. See Virginia State Board of Elec­tions, Ballot Stand­ards, Mar. 2018, https://www.elec­­sware­house/elec­tion-manage­ment/ballots/2019–07–25-SBE-Ballot-Stand­ards-and-Veri­fic­a­tion-Proced­ures.pdf. Many elec­tion codes describe the form ballots should take in tech­nical terms but provide no visual examples or other simpler types of guid­ance. foot­note4_r9ai­foo 4 For example, New York Stat. § 7–106(3) uses formal language to describe a require­ment that ballots have numbered stubs: “Each ballot shall be prin­ted on the sheet with a stub which shall be separ­ated there­from by a line of perfor­a­tions extend­ing across the entire ballot. On the face of the stub shall be prin­ted ‘No…’ the blank to be filled with consec­ut­ive number of ballots begin­ning with ‘No. 1’, and increas­ing in regu­lar numer­ical order.”

States should not codify prescrip­tions for the exact text, font size, number of pages, size of pages, or other elements of ballot design. foot­note5_p47k3o9 5 For example, New York Stat. § 7–106(8) dictates the dimen­sions of candid­ate name boxes and voting spaces, and even the thick­ness of the lines separ­at­ing these areas. While often well inten­tioned, these laws are diffi­cult to change and can lead to unanti­cip­ated confu­sion for voters. Flex­ible stand­ards and guid­ance are more likely to help local offi­cials create usable, fair ballot designs. For instance, guid­ance that directs offi­cials to check ballots for equit­able treat­ment of candid­ates is prefer­able to a stat­ute requir­ing that all candid­ates in a contest appear on the same page. In races with large numbers of candid­ates, such a mandate could lead to print that is too small for some voters to read. Guid­ance that directs offi­cials to check ballot designs for access­ib­il­ity is prefer­able to a law dictat­ing font size, as the latter could lead to unfair ballot design.

In unusual situ­ations, elec­tion offi­cials should test ballots and respond appro­pri­ately.

Some­times the number of candid­ates, the size of the ballot, or other condi­tions make it impossible to meet best prac­tices, such as placing all the candid­ates in a contest on one page. In these scen­arios, elec­tion offi­cials should conduct usab­il­ity test­ing in order to minim­ize Elec­tion Day confu­sion. They should respond appro­pri­ately to the results by choos­ing a less confus­ing design and educat­ing voters — for instance, by remind­ing them to check all pages of their ballot for their options. foot­note6_szhmxwp 6 In the 2016 U.S. Senate race in Cali­for­nia, some counties were forced to list the 34 candid­ates across multiple ballot pages. Usab­il­ity test­ing helped some counties mitig­ate this prob­lem with warn­ings to voters on the ballot itself. In-precinct scan­ning also reduced the over­vote rate signi­fic­antly, accord­ing to Kimball and Krop­f’s analysis. See David C. Kimball and Martha Kropf, “Analysis of Over­votes in the 2016 Cali­for­nia Senate Primary Elec­tion,” 2017,­votes-2016-Senatt-Kimball-Kropf.docx.

Ballot initi­at­ives should have titles and summar­ies.

Voters often complain about the length and complex­ity of ballot ques­tions, espe­cially in states where ballots contain many propos­i­tions. Elec­tion offi­cials may have little control over a ballot meas­ure’s text, but they can still facil­it­ate its clear present­a­tion. States should provide an offi­cial title and summary for each meas­ure. Titles should be memor­able and mean­ing­ful, and summar­ies should be concise. They should be subject to public review and comment.

End Notes