Voter Turnout Series: Ballot Design


Voter turnout in America isn’t great, and it will take a multitude of solutions to improve it significantly. In Why Don’t People Turn Out For Elections?, I outlined the primary reasons why people don’t vote. Since writing that post, I’ve been reading a lot of smart people writing about what we can do to fix turnout issues, and plan to write many more posts about it.

Today, though, let’s look at one aspect of the voter experience. In this day and age, thanks to the internet and apps and mobile phones, etc. we expect a lot of things that we do to be easy, understandable, and designed well. I’m not sure many of us would describe voting that way.

What caught my eye recently was a line in an article that said that ballots looked like tests. That’s not a great way to get people to look forward to voting. Is there a way to make ballots easy, understandable, and designed well?

The bad examples abound.

Do you remember the presidential election in 2000? And the problems with the “butterfly ballot” and hanging chads?

Florida ballot

Florida’s butterfly ballot in 2000. Which hole do you punch for Al Gore? Photo via Wikipedia


How about this ballot from California where there were so many candidates that they split them into two columns. How many voters do you think missed those in the second column?


Not good, California. Photo via Center for Civic Design


And this example from Chicago. My eyes! My eyes!

Screen Shot 2018-06-10 at 9.46.45 PM

This is horrible. A Chicago ballot. Photo via Pacific Standard


Here’s a before & after picture of an Illinois ballot. Notice on the left it isn’t immediately apparent which set of candidates the arrow belongs to, while on the right, the outlining and spacing makes each set of races clear.

Screen Shot 2018-06-10 at 9.44.07 PM

Illinois ballot, before & after. Photo via Pacific Standard


The good news is that there are people looking at ballot design. I’ve seen universities give ballot design challenges to students studying product design. The bad news is that every election is designed locally, and have local rules and laws that dictate what needs to be done on the ballot. You can read more about the details of getting local ballots changed at the Atlantic’s Designing a Better Ballot.

If you are at all interested in design, and keeping ballots simple and understandable, I encourage you to get in touch with your local elections board. All you have to do is Google the name of your county and the word elections. In fact, you should do that right now whether you’re into ballot design or not. It is a voter resource you should be aware of. They’re there for you!

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2 replies

  1. Anything we can do to get people to vote, by all means we have to do it!

  2. The touch screen ballots we have in our Ohio district are wonderful and it’s too bad they couldn’t be the Standard. Voters get a key card which they insert into a slot. Everything is then presented on a large screen with a choice of text size for folks who may have bad eyesight. The display is clear without any clutter, and a paper ballot is created on a tape as a backup. The machines allow the voter to review and make changes if desired before actually casting the votes. I’m sure the machines are expensive, but they seem to be worth it.

    If only we Ohioans could’ve used them intelligently in 2016…. 🙁

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