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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.

Before

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

After

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.

Before

Center aligned text - harder to read

After

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.

Before

Sample of 8 point type

After

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.

Avoid
  • Times New Roman
  • Geor­gia
  • Cambria
Use
  • 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.

Before

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

After

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.

Avoid

Examples of party symbols

Use

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.

Before

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.

After

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.”

Use

find
help
make sure
message
put
turn on
use

Avoid

locate, identify
assist
verify, valid­ate, prompt
prompt
incor­por­ate
power on
util­ize


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.

Before

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

After

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.

Before

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

After

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

Vote!

  • 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.

Good

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.

Before

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.

After

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).