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Memo to Ohio County Boards of Elections re: November Ballot Layout

On September 17, 2008, the Brennan Center, AIGA Design for Democracy, Usability Professionals’ Association, and Professor David Kimball sent a memo to Ohio county boards of elections reminding them of ballot design best practices as they finalized their ballots for the November election.

Published: September 17, 2008

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To:       All County Boards of Elections, State of Ohio

From:   The Brennan Center, AIGA Design for Democracy, the Usability Professionals’ Association and Professor David Kimball

Date:    September 17, 2008

Urgent Reminder of Ballot Design Best Practices

As you finalize the design and layout for your November ballots, we write to remind you of some extremely important ballot design principles.  As you may already know, the Brennan Center, the Usability Professionals’ Association and Professor David Kimball of the University of Missouri, St. Louis recently collaborated with the nation’s leading election officials, designers, political scientists and usability experts to produce Better Ballots, a study of ballot design flaws and their impact on elections.  Design for Democracy, a contributor to Better Ballots, has studied ballot design and its impact on elections for several years.  Last year, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) accepted Design for Democracy’s research and best practice recommendations for ballot and polling place information design.

On September 8, 2008, the Ohio Secretary of State issued directive 2008–83, relating to the 2008 General Election Ballots, as well as a sample ballot for this election.  The directive and sample ballot incorporated a number of best practices, including using upper- and lower-case letters for names of candidates, placing text flush left (especially for candidate names), and simplifying certain instructions.

In addition to these principles, we urge you to ensure that your ballots comply with the following guidelines, which are consistent with both the EAC guidelines on ballot design and the recommendations in Better Ballots (an illustration incorporating these guidelines into the Sample Ballot provided by the Secretary of State can be found on page 3 of this document).[1]

1.                  Avoid splitting contests

It is critical, to the extent possible, that candidates for the same race are listed on the same page and in the same column.  This is true even if it means you will have to use paper that is longer than 8 ½" x 11".  We know from previous contests that dividing a race into two columns will lead to voter error.  For instance, in 2002, in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, voters were presented with a ballot that divided the Governor’s race into two columns.  11.8% of voters in Kewaunee County did not have a vote recorded in this contest, as against approximately 1% of voters in the rest of the state (where this split contest ballot was not used).

2.                  Ensure that candidate choices do not “bleed into” one another

In reviewing your ballot, it may seem obvious which oval corresponds to which candidate.  But for first time voters, voters with reading disabilities, and voters in a hurry, this will not always be so clear.  To make the voting process easier for voters, make sure that voters know which oval corresponds with which candidate.  In the case of the Presidential contest for the Sample Ballot provided by the Secretary of State, this means aligning the ovals with “For President,” at the top of each candidate grouping (if you were to lead each grouping with the candidate name, rather than “For President,” then the oval should be placed next to the candidate name), and placing the information for each grouping of candidates (“For President,” candidate name, “For Vice-President,” candidate name) closely together, while leaving sufficient space between candidate pairs so that it is clear where one grouping ends and another begins.  See the illustration on page 3 of this document for an example of what this might look like if incorporated into the Sample Ballot provided by the Secretary of State.

3.                  Use shading to help voters differentiate between voting tasks

Proper shading and clear borders between ballot items help voters easily identify separate voting tasks and differentiate between instructions, races, and ballot measures.  For instance, the Secretary of State’s Sample Ballot provides a separate instruction for the presidential contest.  We recommend shading this contest heading and instructions, so it is clear to voters where the candidate choices begin.

Please feel free to contact us as you finalize your ballots.  We welcome the opportunity to review your ballots and provide feedback, free of charge.  You can e-mail any or all of us at the following addresses:

Lawrence Norden
Brennan Center for Justice

Jessica Friedman Hewitt
AIGA Design for Democracy

Whitney Quesenbery
Usability Professionals’ Association

David Kimball
University of Missouri, St. Louis

[1] We make these recommendations understanding that many of you are constrained by the technical limitations of your systems and Ohio legal requirements.