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How to Design Better Ballots

The Center for Civic Design proposes guidelines for making ballots that are easily understood by voters.

  • Whitney Quesenbery
Published: February 3, 2020

Designing usable ballots

We know now from several years of testing ballots all over the U.S. that implementing simple principles of design make it much more likely that voters are able to vote the way they intend.

In research conducted by AIGA’s Design for Democracy Project for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), Mary Quandt and Drew Davies and their team learned the nittygritty of what makes design in election signage, posters, ballots, and other print materials effective for all kinds of voters.

About ballot design

A ballot is a form that represents perhaps the most important interaction between a government and its citizens. Thousands of votes are lost in elections every year because of poorly designed ballots. And yet, avoiding these design issues is not difficult or expensive.

What a ballot looks like is constrained by legislation, technology, history, custom, cost, and other factors. But the anatomy of a ballot is fairly consistent throughout the more than 3,000 counties, parishes, and boroughs in the U.S. Design guidelines provide a tool for helping voters focus on their goal to cast votes for their preferred candidates.

No. 01: Use lowercase letters.

Lowercase letters are more legible than ALL CAPITAL LETTERS because they make shapes that are easier to recognize.


This line is all capital letters (it shows the text as solid blocks)


This line is Upper and Lowercase. The text is blocks that show the letter variations.

No. 02: Avoid centered type.

Left-aligned type is more legible than centered type, which forces the eye to hunt for the start of the next line.


Center aligned text - harder to read


Left-aligned text (easier to read)

No. 03: Use big enough type.

Small print is hard to read for many voters.

Use these minimum type sizes:

  • 12-point for print
  • 3.0 – 4.0mm for screen

Larger text may increase the number of pages but it is a worthwhile investment in election accuracy.


Sample of 8 point type


Sample of 12-point type

No. 04: Pick one sans-serif font.

Use sans-serif fonts with clean strokes.

For dual-language materials, use bold text for the primary language, regular text for the secondary language.

Using just one font makes the ballot more unified. Different fonts make voters stop reading and adjust.

  • Times New Roman
  • Georgia
  • Cambria
  • Arial
  • Helvetica
  • Univers
  • Verdana
  • Clearview ADA

No. 05: Support process and navigation.

Put instructions where they are needed. Use page (or screen) numbering to show progress.

For electronic ballots, let voters change language or display options, with instructions available at any time.

Post easy-to-see instructions for both voting and moving around the polling place.

Call out showing instructions on a paper ballot where needed.

Continue voting next side instruction is placed at the end of the last column on the page.

No. 06: Use clear, simple language.

Make instructions and options as simple as possible.

Do not include more than two languages.

If possible, summarize referenda in simple language alongside required formats.

Simple language is often shorter, taking up less space.


If an overvoted ballot is encountered, the voter is entitled to another blank ballot after surrendering the spoiled ballot.


If you make a mistake, ask a poll worker for another ballot.

No. 07: Use accurate instructional illustrations.

Visual instructions help low-literacy and all voters.

Illustrations must be accurate in their details, highlighting the most important instructions.

Do not use photographs.

Call out on a paper ballot showing instructions at the top

Illustrations at the beginning of the ballot show how to use the ballot.

No. 08: Use informational icons (only).

Use icons that call attention to key information and support navigation with care.

Don’t use political party emblems.


Examples of party symbols


Examples of informational icons for attention and proceed or continue

No. 09: Use contrast and color to support meaning.

Use color and shading consistently:

  • On paper ballots, to separate instructions from contests and contests from each other.
  • On electronic ballots, to support navigation, call special attention, and provide user feedback.

Do not rely on color as the only way to communicate important information.

Callout showing shading used on a paper ballot

Shading and color can help voters quickly see the structure of the ballot.

No. 10: Show what’s most important.

Use layout and text size to help voters know what to pay attention to.

The ballot title should be the most prominent.

A contest header should be more prominent than the candidates’ names.

A candidate’s name should be bolder than his/her party affiliation.

Candidates’ names and options should be presented with equal importance.

Callouts showing ballot title, contest header, candidate name and party affiliation

Writing instructions voters understand

It’s amazing the difference simple language can make for voters. In research conducted for the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Ginny Redish and Dana Chisnell found that when instructions on ballots were in plain language, voters made fewer mistakes and were more likely to vote the way they intended.

What is plain language?

According to the Center for Plain Language, something is in plain language if it considers who will use it, why they will use it, and what they will do with it. The language used minimizes jargon and uses sentence structure, strong verbs, word choice, and other similar techniques to make sure that the audience can read, understand, and use the information.

No. 01: At the beginning of the ballot, explain how to change a vote, and that voters may write in a candidate.

Example of a ballot with a clear write-in instructions

On optical scan ballots, instructions like these are most effective when placed just before the first contests.

No. 02: Put instructions where voters need them.

Break instructions into groups.

On paper ballots, place instructions to turn the ballot over at the bottom right hand corner.

On electronic ballots, put instructions for writing in candidates on the write-in screen.

Example ballot with instruction at the bottom of the column to continue onto the next page

Continue voting next side instruction is placed at the end of the last column on the page.

No. 03: Include information that will prevent voters from making errors.

Show and tell voters how to mark the ballot.

Tell voters not to write in candidates whose names already appear on the ballot.

Example ballot with diagrams showing how to correctly select a candidate

Simple illustrations, along with clear instructions, help voters know what to do.

No. 04: Write short sentences.

Use simple words.

Remove unnecessary words.

Separate instructions from results.


If you tear, or deface, or wrongly mark this ballot, return it and obtain another. Do not attempt to correct mistakes on the ballot by making erasures or cross outs. Erasures or cross outs may invalidate all or part of your ballot. Prior to submitting your ballot, if you make a mistake in completing the ballot or wish to change your ballot choices, you may obtain and complete a new ballot. You have a right to a replacement ballot upon return of the original ballot.


If you make a mistake, ask a poll worker for another ballot.

No. 05: Use short, simple everyday words.

Select the plain rather than the formal word.

Avoid jargon, such as “over vote,” “under vote,” and “partisan.”


make sure
turn on


locate, identify
verify, validate, prompt
power on

No. 06: Write in the active voice, where the person doing the action comes before the verb.

Think of the voter as “you.”

Write instructions where the subject is “you,” implied or understood.

You don’t have to state “you” directly.


Moving ahead is accomplished by touching the word Next; moving back by pressing Back.


To go forward in the ballot, touch Next.
To go back to previous pages in the ballot, touch Back.

No. 07: Write in the positive.

Tell voters what to do rather than what not to do.


If that oval is not marked, your vote cannot be counted for the candidate.


You must fill in the oval for your vote to count.

No. 08: When giving instructions that are more than one step, make each step an item in a numbered list.

Do not number other instructions. When the instructions are not sequential steps, use separate paragraphs or simple bullets with bold beginnings rather than numbering.

Non-sequential steps


  • Mark your votes in private.
  • Follow the instructions on the ballot.
  • Do not write your name or an ID number anywhere on the ballot.
Sequential steps

To make changes:

  1. Touch the race you want to change.
  2. At that race, if you have selected something before, touch the choice you do not want.
  3. Then touch choice you want.
  4. To return to this screen, touch Return to Review.

No. 09: Keep paragraphs short.

A one-sentence paragraph is fine.


If you need any help while voting, please contact your county elections office.

Seal the envelope to keep your votes private.

Do not write on this envelope.

No. 10: Separate paragraphs by a space so each paragraph stands out on the page or screen.


Press the box of the candidate for whom you desire to vote; yellow will appear in the box. The voter must retouch the selected item to deselect it first in order to change a vote.


To vote for a candidate of your choice, touch that person’s name.

If you make a mistake or want to change a vote, first touch the name you no longer want.

This work is licensed from the Center for Civic Design under a Creative Commons license (CC BYNC-ND 3.0).