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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. 1For 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. 2For 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. 3For 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.elections.virginia.gov/media/formswarehouse/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. 4For 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. 5For 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. 6In 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, https://civicdesign.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Analysis-of-Overvotes-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.

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