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Designing Ballots for Tomorrow

By Natalie Adona / 2016 June 6th

The Elections Program at Democracy Fund proudly welcomes the Center for Civic Design as its newest grantee.

By virtue of its ultimate goal – “ensuring voter intent through design” – the Center for Civic Design seeks to improve the voter experience by designing election materials that are understandable to an electorate with diverse educational, personal, and cultural backgrounds and learning styles. Its expert leaders, Whitney Quesenbery and Dana Chisnell, not only improve voting through usability testing and applied design research but also develop tools and best practices for use by local election officials.

You might, however, be asking yourself, “why is the design of election materials important?” The most obvious answer can be summarized in two words: butterfly ballot. Okay, how about “Florida 2000?” “Bush v. Gore?” (Does the “v” count as a third word?)

When a voter accidentally skips or misreads a piece of important information, that oversight can quickly lead to a missed opportunity to cast a vote or have that vote count. Even with the growing trend toward digitizing some aspects of election administration (notably, the move to online voter registration and the adoption of e-poll books), let’s face it: most election processes still use paper forms that have a lot of required information packed into them. The likelihood of a voter skipping essential data fields is very high when presented on a paper form – especially when instructions look like a hodgepodge of technocratic mumbo-jumbo squished into irregularly-shaped boxes all seemingly sewn together WITH LONG STRINGS OF INSTRUCTIONS WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS.

I think you get the idea. When I was a poll worker trainer in California, a supervisor of mine once described the election process as “a big paperwork party.” Her point was two-fold:

1) On the administrative side, local election officials are required to distribute and process thousands of paper forms to and from voters (and poll workers – but that’s a story for another day). Every piece of paper received from voters helps officials determine important details like who’s eligible to receive which ballot, how many voters could show up to vote per precinct, or how many resources need to be allocated to polling places.

Here’s an example of information that must be communicated to voters from election officials in Minnesota. The Center for Civic Design and a team of volunteer experts around the country worked with the Secretary of State’s office to refresh its absentee balloting instructions after the 2008 election. As you can see, the difference is remarkable.

Minnesota Voting Instructions: BEFORE
Minnesota Voting Instructions - Before
Minnesota Voting Instructions: AFTER
Minnesota Voting Instructions - After

2) From the point of view of citizens, most will receive and cast paper ballots. Those ballots can have several contests on them and come with a lot of instructions that voters need to see and understand in order to properly cast their ballot. Voters also encounter important materials like voter registration applications, envelopes containing official election materials, and voter information pamphlets.

One type of form that voters in most states must complete is the voter registration application. As you can see from the example below, the Center for Civic Design, working closely with collaborator OxideDesign Co., redesigned Pennsylvania’s voter registration form. Pennsylvania recently implemented online voter registration, but many of its voters still rely on the paper form to register. The paper form is designed to coordinate with the online form, letting voters choose the way of registering that works best for them. Which do you think is easier to read?

Pennsylvania Voter Registration: BEFORE
Pennsylvania Voter Registration - BEFORE
Pennsylvania Voter Registration: AFTER
Pennsylvania Voter Registration - After

The Center for Civic Design works with election officials, government and nonprofit organizations, and the public to achieve its ultimate goal of accurately capturing voter intent. Its leaders’ painstaking research and collaborative projects to improve the voter experience make the Center for Civic Design a fantastic addition to our portfolio. Welcome to the Democracy Fund team!

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