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Ballot Library—Core Findings & Recommendations

Core findings & recommendations from ballot design report.

Published: July 21, 2008

Core Findings:

  • Hundreds of thousands of voters have been effectively disenfranchised in the last several elections as a result of poor ballot design and instructions.
  • All voters are at some risk for lost or misrecorded votes.
  • The risk is greater for particular groups of citizens, including older voters, new voters, and low-income voters.
  • All voting technologies are affected.
  • There is still time to ensure that, this November, we avoid the design blunders that have cost so many votes in the past.



Ballot instructions should be brief, simple and clear.

Paper ballots:

  • Display general instructions in the top left-hand corner of the ballot. Place specific instructions and related actions together. Do not put all instructions at the beginning of the ballot.
  • Let voters know that if they make a mistake, they can get a new ballot. Include this information in the initial instructions.

Electronic ballots:

  • Display startup or initialization instructions in an easy-to-spot location, such as next to the computer screen.
  • Place specific instructions and related actions together, on the screen for the action (not at the beginning of the ballot or next to the computer screen).
  • Allow voters to review their selections. Present a “Summary Ballot”, beginning with an instruction that states: “Review your ballot selections carefully,” followed by instructions on how to change a selection and how to cast the ballot

All ballots:

  • In instructions for write-in votes, state plainly that voters should not vote for both a named candidate and a write-in a candidate for the same office.
  • Write instructions in an active voice and in positive terms. For example, instruct the voter to “Fill in the oval for your write-in vote to count,” rather than, “If the oval is not marked, your vote cannot be counted for the write-in candidate.” 
  • Use common, easily understood words. For example, “Move to the next page of the ballot,” or “Move to the next screen,” Rather than “Navigate forward through the ballot.”
  • Provide the context of the action first, then the action. For example: “[Context] To vote for the candidate of your choice, [Action] fill the oval to the left of the candidate’s name” or “[Context] To vote for the candidate of your choice, [Action] touch the candidate’s name."
  • Place each instruction on its own line.


Don’t split contest.

  • List all candidates for the same race on the same page and in the same column.
  • Remove the entire column or row for any candidate or party that has been withdrawn or disqualified (not just the candidate or party name).


Make sure ballot design is consistent.

  • Use a consistent format and style for every contest and voting action.
  • Format the location of text, instructions, and voting actions for each contest consistently.
  • Apply font type, letter-size, shading and other text formatting to all contests consistently.
  • Display response options (such as fill-in ovals) on only one side of candidate names or ballot question choices.


Make ballots easy to understand visually.

Paper ballots:

  • Use the fill-the-oval, rather than the connect-the-arrow, method of selecting a choice in a contest. 

Electronic ballots:

  • Only place one contest on each screen.

All ballots:

  • Use flush-left text, instead of centered text.
  • Display all text in mixed case, rather than all capital letters.
  • Use a simple and easy-to-read font, such as Arial or Univers.
  • Bold and/or shade certain text, such as office names.
  • Use a legible, minimum text size, meeting VVSG requirements, such as 12 points.
  • Eliminate extraneous information (e.g., candidate’s hometown, occupation, etc.), or design it to avoid visual clutter.


Give voters maximum flexibility.

  • Allow voters to select or change the language of the ballot at any time during the voting process.
  • Allow voters to change text size and contrast levels and to get audio support at any time during the voting process.


Ballot Library – Past Ballot Design Problems

“Residual” or “lost” votes are typically calculated as the difference between the number of people voting and the number of valid votes cast for a particular office. In reviewing recent elections with unexpectedly high lost vote rates, we invariably found flawed ballot designs or instructions. Four examples are included here, three paper and one touch screen (Sarasota County).

Select one of the following counties to see actual ballots with flawed designs or sets of instructions. Click a ballot for a larger view or, in most instances, scroll over a ballot to see the flaw. Corrected ballots further illustrate how steps to correct these ballots need not be complicated or expensive.

If you are county election administrator, representing a state, county or other jurisdiction and would like guidance for best design practices for November’s ballot from our Task Force, you may email us for assistance at Please attach recent ballot designs or drafts for November.