Why Are Election Ballots So Confusing?

Blame Times New Roman ... and a bunch of other factors

Getting ready to vote in the U.S. can be stressful. There’s the whole deciding who you’re going to vote for part (which can be complicated in a country that elects presidents, legislators, judges, city council members, and coroners). Then you have to make sure you know where your polling place is. Bring a photo ID if you live in a state that requires it. You should probably also figure out if your state is voting on ballot initiatives. Oh, and don’t forget to register (maybe many months ahead of time).

But voting is also exciting, and not just because of the complimentary "I Voted" stickers that the Founding Fathers so wisely included in the Constitution. Once you’ve done all that prep work, filling out a ballot is easier than finding a Donald Trump tweet that ends in an exclamation point.

Just kidding! Sometimes, just figuring out how to read a ballot can be as bewildering as the rest of the election process.

Ask the people who mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore in Palm Beach County in 2000. Or the people whose vote in the New York Senate races didn’t count because they were confused by the many rows of different candidates and filled in too many ovals. Or the Ohio Republicans who went to vote in this year’s primary and were confused by a ballot that was designed according to old rules — even though the rules had changed.

Nearly all ballots in the U.S. have moments where they make about as much sense as a local theater group performing a Chekhovian adaptation of Sharknado. "They expect a lot of the reader," says John Lindback, executive director of the Electronic Registration Information Center and former director of elections in Oregon.

Some readers might have been repeating the same errors for years. Dana Chisnell at the Center for Civic Design, an organization trying to ensure that voters are able to say exactly what they mean at the polls, tells a story of doing usability tests on ballots back in 2008, which entailed letting would-be voters use sample ballots and then seeing if they could vote correctly. The ballot being tested asked people to connect two arrow ends to signal their choice, but one woman, a longtime voter, had been putting a big X in the empty spaces. "It’s possible that she had been voting incorrectly for decades, and never ever realized," Chisnell says.

Voter registration forms can also get confusing; the Los Angeles Times recently reported that about 73 percent of the members of the uber-conservative American Independence Party in California may have signed up for party membership by accident while trying to register as Independent voters, completely misreading the voter registration form.

But why is all this paperwork — forms that will help decide who our next president will be — so badly designed? Shouldn’t it be a right to be able to vote without it feeling like a pop quiz? "You think it’s a simple question, but like many simple questions, it’s not a simple question at all," says Whitney Quesenbery, also at the Center for Civic Design. "There’s a constellation of problems."

A lot of these problems are brought to us by the fact that most election officials and legislators know little about design. As Marcia Lausen, director of the UIC School of Design and author of the book Design for Democracy: Ballot and Election Design, writes, "Many election officials are unaware of the existence of our profession, let alone the value of our expertise."

Election officials are also usually worried about other things, like figuring out how to print up different ballots for every precinct by a certain deadline without spending a fortune, and attending to problems that plagued the last election cycle. (Get ready for everyone to be on long-line watch this year, after the queuepocalypse of 2012.) "Ballot design has always been an afterthought," Lindback says.

Meanwhile, state legislators have been slowly piling up annoying checklists of things that further limit election officials’ ability to make ballots better. These requirements include mandating certain font choices, text sizes, and margin widths. As a result, modern ballots are doubling as democratic paperwork and museums of elections past. Although these regulations are outdated, and often unhelpful, few people in government seem interested in changing them. "It’s tough when you’re competing with the roads and garbage," Quesenbery says. "The perception is that elections are run just fine, and why should we spend so much money on them?" Chisnell adds that "candidates who got elected with those election laws don’t really want to change them."

Other times, the laws remain because people forgot they existed. In 2010, New York State changed its ballots to usher in the transition from lever machines to optical scanners. The ballot’s instructions remained vintage, however, and ended up telling voters to fill in the oval above their preferred candidate even though the correct oval was, in fact, below the name. Election officials were simply obeying the law by putting the (incorrect) instructions there. The New York City Board of Elections said at the time that the "instructions are not wrong," but "our ballot design does not match up to the instructions."

All of these factors have inspired a subset of patriotic graphic designers to try to save the ballot from its bureaucratic demons. The American Institute for Graphic Design has been giving election officials pointers on how to make ballots better since 2000 through its Design for Democracy program, and the Center for Civic Design, with the help of Kickstarter backers, created field guides that function as a free crash course in Helping Voters Help Democracy 101. The tips are simple and include:

1. Don’t use Times New Roman, the "sweatpants" of fonts; use Helvetica, the font briefly approved for highway signs, or another sans-serif font.

2. Don’t center text like you’re writing a sonnet; left-aligned type is much easier for readers to follow.

3. Make sure voters can figure out where to find the most important information on each ballot.

4. Don’t listen to your résumé-building inner self and shrink text so small, in the effort of fitting more information on a page, that no one can read it.

5. Use plain language, not mangled, overthought legalese — you’re supposed to want people to understand what and whom they’re voting for.

6. Don’t use states’ weird party emblems. No one knows what they mean, and they usually look awful after multiple printings. (Quesenbery says that the only party icon she’s seen that actually conveyed useful information about the organization’s platform is the Freedom Party’s: "It’s a pot leaf.")

These changes seem like they wouldn’t be that hard to make, but the creaky mechanics of democracy can make even the smallest modifications a massive chore. Sarah Higgins was an AIGA election fellow at the Washington State Secretary of State’s office from 2011 to 2013, and quickly learned to treat the most minor improvements on ballots as a monumental achievement. "The process is incredibly slow-moving," she says, adding that it was "amusing" to see how long it took to change something on the ballot, given that the Secretary of State’s office sometimes had to ask the state legislature to pass a law before, say, putting more white space between instructions and ballot measures was even possible. "It took a lot of work and patience."

Oregon has probably come furthest in trying to make ballots voter-friendly. This isn’t terribly surprising, as the state is already a pioneer in election administration writ large — it does mail-in voting, and just introduced automatic voter registration this year. But even there, ballots aren’t perfect. "It’s like building things with Legos," Quesenbery says. "It’s not going to look like great art."

Still, more and more election officials are signing up to go on a ballot-cleansing quest every year, which makes these designers hopeful — and keeps them busy. Chisnell did a stint on San Francisco’s Ballot Simplification Committee, which writes descriptions of each ballot measure in language that is unbiased and easy to understand. Officials in California called up the Center for Civic Design for some help with solving their latest logic puzzle: The primary for Senator Barbara Boxer’s seat will take place on June 7, and thanks to the state’s jungle primary law, all 34 candidates, regardless of party, will appear on the same ballot. They’ve tested out some sample ballots with voters and realized that this conundrum will take some serious Sherlocking to keep things clear, but they’re going to keep trying until they find a solution, even if it has to be less elegant than the ideal. After the 2016 rush, many counties across the country will buy new election equipment, and perhaps start thinking about revamping their ballots too. For now, designers are just trying to make sure the officials they work with test ballots and tweak as necessary, before general election ballots have to go to the printers at the end of the summer.

Those voters asked to test the ballots make it clear that this underappreciated aspect of elections is something worth fighting for, despite the glacial pace of progress. During a usability test in Baltimore, Quesenbery spoke with one woman who was struggling to understand the ballot. Voting was important to her, and she wanted to make sure she was doing her part. "She wasn’t saying, 'I don’t want to vote; it’s too hard,'" Quesenbery says. "She was saying, ‘This is hard stuff, but I want to do it.’ And we don’t make it easy enough for her."

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