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Infographic: Ballot Design Still Sucks (Let’s Count the Ways)

WNYC annotates the new New York City ballot, which debuted in all its crappy glory today.

It’s been 10 years since Palm Beach County, Florida’s indecipherable butterfly ballots threw the national spotlight on the failings of ballot design, and still, somehow, we’re getting it wrong.

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That seems to be the case in New York City, anyway, which debuted new ballot in today’s primaries. Gone are the chunky lever machines; in their stead are paper ballots you fill out with a pen the slip into a scanner. New York public radio station WNYC got its hands on a sample and asked some designers to analyze its layout, the results of which are posted in an excellent interactive annotation here. Their conclusion: The ballot sucks. WNYC reports:

Voters run the risk of filling in the wrong oval for a candidate, misunderstanding which races allow voting for more than one candidate, or missing the write-in area altogether.

[Two WNYC reporters even tried out the new ballot themselves and made mistakes.]

As is often the case with bad design, the problem areas are both obvious and subtle. The grid format is a big one. It doesn’t work on paper, because it crams too much information into narrow columns, making text small and hard to read.

Another no-brainer: All caps, as with the instructions below. Text is easier to follow when it includes lower- and uppercase letters — indeed, that’s the point of letter cases. Perhaps less self-evident are things like where to place the instructions. Here, they’re on the right of the page. But people read left to right, meaning they’re reading only after they’ve see the rest of the ballot (and tried to fill it out).

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We’ve only scratched the surface of everything that’s wrong with the new ballot. For a full breakdown go to WNYC’s Web site.

[Note how fill-in bubbles are closer to the text of their neighbors.]

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The irony is that the new ballot is actually a product of the 2000 elections. It’s now federal law to have a paper trail of votes, and New York City responded by making the ballot itself paper. What it’s made out of, though, matters infinitely less than the design. And that’s the most vexing part of the story. For all the election reform that came out of the 2000 presidential race, ballots still aren’t designed by designers. They’re cooked up by state election officials, who don’t know Helvetica from Courier. Slate wrote an great article about this back in 2003. Depressingly, it’s as relevant as ever.

[Images via WNYC; except top image, by Pic by Ludovic Bertro on Flickr]

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About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D

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