Monday, August 11, 2008

Better Ballots -- some good ideas


Even the New York Times is concerned about the morass of local confusion mixed sometimes with partisan "strategic incompetence" that U.S. elections often reveal.

Much about the presidential election is up in the air, but one thing is certain: voters will have trouble casting ballots on Election Day. In a perfect world, states and localities would handle voting so well that the public could relax and worry about other things. But elections are so mismanaged — and so many eligible voters are disenfranchised — that ordinary citizens have to get involved.

The Times is probably right that a large part of the problem is the stinginess of jurisdictions that have to manage elections. Constituent eagerness for funding efficient elections is small -- until something goes wrong, and then the arguments turn passionate, heads roll, but little reform comes out of the noise.

Some folks are trying to make a constructive contribution to managing better elections. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law has published a study of how election officials could design voting materials so that voters had an easier time understanding them. Better Ballots is available for download and well worth reading in its entirety.

But their findings needn't be restricted to election officials. Anyone preparing instructions for large numbers of people for any task could benefit from thinking about their checklist.

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 instructions in an easy-to-spot location in the voting booth.
  • Place specific instructions and related actions together. Do not put all instructions at the beginning of the ballot.
  • Instruct voters to review their selections and provide clear instructions on how to change a selection and 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. ("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. ("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. ("[Context] To vote for the candidate of your choice, [Action] fill the oval to the left of the candidate’s name."
    Place each instruction on its own line.
I didn't have much trouble coming up with a few suggestions of my own.
  • Voters don't think about whether the offices they are voting for are "Federal," "State," "County," or "City." Legally the jurisdictional names will have to be included, but make it clear to folks, for example, that they are voting for a "Congressmember," not just a "United States Representative."
  • make the type on your ballot large enough for older or near-sighted readers to read!
What suggestions for clear design of instructions can you make?

1 comment:

sfmike said...

Good marketing surveys tend to be beautifully typeset and clear in the information they are trying to elicit, but simplicity and clear writing are rarer in the rest of the world, particularly American elections. Readable type, clear distinctions between different kinds of voting (municipal, state, federal), and simple instructions would all be fabulous, but we're not even close.

While working as an elections department "inspector" in San Francisco off-and-on for the last six years, I've always been astonished at the sheer Byzantine complexity of the tasks given to us each election, and they change every goddamned time.

I tend to think of myself as a quick study who can learn new things in a small period of time, but people who are not necessarily bright and/or educated are also being asked to absorb all this info. It really does feel as if the process is designed to keep people from voting and the entire experience became seriously depressing. I'm not going to dog it anymore.

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