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The most pervasive ballot design flaw you don’t notice

Forget the butterfly ballot.

The most pervasive ballot design flaw you don’t notice
[Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images]

Many will remember the infamously confusing Palm Beach County butterfly ballot, which led to 26,000 misvotes, a recount, and ultimately handed George W. Bush the presidency in 2000. Twenty years later, we have new ballot design problems to deal with—and there’s one you’ve probably never heard of.

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Most of the ballot design flaws detailed in a recent resource from the Brennan Center for Justice seem rather innocuous. But there’s one in that, if fixed, could reduce margin of error and thereby make the voting system overall more reflective of voters’ intent: ballot design that splits one contest into two columns on a bubble-style page.

There are a few other permutations of this layout, and they all share one key flaw: They split up information that should be categorized together. The first contest on a ballot might fall below the ballot instructions in the first column, causing voters to miss it. A contest might be split into two columns because there’s a large number of candidates to consider—or, on an electronic voting system, there might be two contests on the same page.

These layouts violate the “one idea, one page” guideline that the Center for Civic Design, an organization that advocates for better electoral UX design, issued in its “Field Guides to Ensuring Voter Intent,” says the Center’s director, Whitney Quesenbery. The overarching problem? They break user expectations.

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Of course, in any election, there’s plenty that can go wrong: the spread of misinformation, purging of voter rolls, voter suppression, foreign interference, and more. But the split-contest flaw—and poorly designed ballots more generally—are one of the most frustrating problems because they’re relatively easy to fix. In the United States, with all the problems around election safety and hacking, elections don’t have room for human error caused by poor design.

[Image: Oxide Design Co./Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law]

A precedent of inconsistency

Design flaws that split up contest information have played out to dramatic effect in a few key counties: Broward County, Florida, in 2018, and Sarasota, Florida, in 2006. In Broward County, the ballot had a block of lengthy instructions in three languages that ran down the first column. The ballot itself was really long—around 21 inches—so it probably didn’t fit on the table, suggests Quesenbery. After reading the instructions in English, many voters skipped ahead to what was seemingly the first race—the governor’s race at the top of the second column. But what they didn’t realize is they skipped the Senate and House of Representatives contests, which were hidden at the end of the instructions.

As a result, 3.5% fewer votes were cast for the senate race as compared to the governor race. “I know it sounds crazy, but as people mark down the ballot, they don’t look to the left or right, they look down the column they’re voting in, and a large number of them just never looked to the left to see that there were two spaces there,” Quesenbery says. To meet voter expectations, the first contest shouldn’t have shared real estate with voter instructions in the first column. It should’ve started at the top of the second column, where the eye goes first.

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The 2006 contest in Sarasota, Florida, had a similar flaw that led to misvotes. In this case, an electronic voting machine was used, and two contests were placed on the same page. A contest for the House of Representatives was at the top of the screen, and there was a state contest under a larger header directly below it. A lot of voters missed the House contest at the top of the screen and skipped directly to the state contest, which had a stronger visual emphasis. How many is “a lot”? Eighteen thousand. Eighteen thousand people showed up to vote and didn’t vote in the House contest. That was also larger than the margin of victory, says Quesenbery. So when people undervoted in that section, it really mattered.

You might wonder why these regions had split column ballots, while others didn’t. That’s because there’s no national standard for ballot design. Individual counties or states buy voting machines and associated ballots from private vendors, so the design varies depending on where you vote.

[Image: Oxide Design Co./Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law]

What’s the risk in 2020?

In the upcoming elections, we can expect the split column ballot to confuse voters yet again. California is just one state where we could anticipate this, because there are so many primary candidates in a few contests that they don’t fit on the ballot except when split up. It’s already happened twice in the state’s recent history, says Quesenbery: in 2016, when counties had to account for fitting in 34 U.S. Senate primary candidates, and in the 2018 governor and senate races. And that doesn’t bode well, because people tend to “overvote,” that is, vote for more than one candidate, when a contest is split up into multiple columns.

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What are the solutions?

The split contest format is most dangerous to fair election outcomes when combined with other design elements that can confuse voters. For this reason, there are a few minor elements that ballot vendors could prioritize in a redesign. For one, make candidate names and the associated marker left justified to create a sense of uniformity and give voters a better sense of what to expect. Also, give bubbles a rounded shape, which voters are more likely to fill in than check (and is better picked up by voting machines), and make text larger and more legible. When it comes to instructions, voters tend to be “very literal,” says Quesenbery. Nothing should be ambiguous.

[Image: Oxide Design Co./Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law]

Challenges ahead

There are some obstacles, though. Because there’s no national ballot-design standard, private vendors have little incentive to prioritize user-friendly design. The second is the actual voting machine. For a ballot design to be successful, the hardware and the software (the ballot, whether paper or electronic) have to play nice. “The first thing [vendors] probably do is design a counting system, right? Because the most important thing is that you’re able to count those ballots,” says Quesenbery. “Based on what that equipment can do, they then design the ballot that will run through it.” The third obstacle is user testing: properly evaluating a ballot layout in the space it will be used, rather than on a computer or at a desk. Quesenbery cited the ballot in Broward County as an example. The flaw wasn’t obvious at first glance—but, “if someone had checked the ballot standing at a typical voting booth, we might have caught the problem.”

The bottom line is that it comes down to simplicity and consistency, and abiding by the general philosophy of “one idea, one page.” “Elections are about big numbers and small numbers,” says Quesenbery. “When a contest is tight, a small number can affect the outcome of an election, and even a very small percentage is a big number. People establish an expectation, and when we break that expectation, bad things happen.”

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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