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Voting in New York City: Why is Ballot Design so Hard to Get Right?

By Whitney Quesenbery and Dana Chisnell

One Saturday in October 2010, a dozen user experience folks spent their day stopping more than 200 strangers on the streets of New York City and asking them to use a prototype of the new paper ballots for the election the following month. They were volunteering with the UPA Usability in Civic Life project and the Brennan Center for Justice, gathering data about the usability of the ballots.

It’s 2010. Ten years after a bad decision about font size decided an election. Even after research, new standards, best practice templates, and a lot of public debate, we still can’t seem to get ballot design right.

What’s going on in New York City is a good case study. After fifty years of mechanical lever machines, New York switched to optical scan ballots. This is a huge step forward because it provides a paper trail. But it also means that voters are now able to make new kinds of mistakes in marking their ballots, like voting too many times in one contest (called overvoting). This is a real problem in New York, where the same candidate may appear under several different parties (See Figure 1). The Brennan Center wanted to know whether the ballots were going to be a problem—before the election.

The UPA Usability in Civic Life project has collaborated with the Brennan Center on several projects. It’s a chance to add our skills in design, accessibility, and usability to their connections and ability to instigate change. Like many projects with the Brennan Center, this one came up fast and had to be completely quickly. A call for volunteers went out on Twitter and got instant replies. Some people reposted the message to STC, UPA, IxDA and their own personal networks. Others helped find test locations in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx; social media at its finest.

What’s really sad about the need for this project is that there is already a lot known about how to design ballots right.

Fig 1-3

New York City paid no attention to all these publicly available resources. So bureaucrats, who are skilled in administering elections but not skilled in design at the Department of Elections, designed the ballot. The usability testing done that October Saturday focused on data collection. But even without detailed observation and think-aloud methods, we heard about a lot of problems. It’s not hard to see how confusing the ballot is:

The real cap to the experience came a day or so later when the official sample ballots were issued. The hat tip goes to volunteer Michele Marut, who spotted that the instructions were just plain wrong. They tell voters to use the oval “above or next to” the candidate. Oops. The oval is actually below the candidate’s name. If you look at the ballot, the oval closest to the name is the wrong oval.

The good news? The instructions were on the back, not in a more visible position just before the first contest. They are so wordy and confusing, and in such small type, that very few people probably looked at them.

We take our hat off to Valerie Vasquez in the Elections Department who told the Wall Street Journal in October 2010, “The instructions are not wrong.” The problem is, she said, “Our ballot design does not match up to the instructions.” The fact that she’s technically correct (the ballot does not actually follow the law) is cold comfort: the lack of interest in the voter experience is shocking.

There is movement toward reform and improved ballot design in New York. The Brennan Center does more than point out problems: they work with state and local governments to get laws and election processes changed. A coalition of advocacy groups (including UPA, AIGA Design for Democracy, and the Center for Plain Language) is working with state and local officials to recommend improvements to both the ballot design and the election process.

At the state level, an elections commissioner has called for the New York election operations division to designate a person on the staff to implement usability best practices. A committee of county election commissioners is working with the Brennan Center, UPA Usability in Civic Life, and AIGA Design for Democracy on revisions to state laws that constrain election design and better ballot design templates.

As this article goes to press, the story is still unfolding: changing an election process takes time. But there are other stories all across the country. We need more user experience people getting more involved with elections and our civic life.

This article is made possible in part by Christopher Fahey, Whitney Hess, Jessica Hewitt, Jonathan (Yoni) Knoll, Michel Marut, Gregg Palmer, Ashley Pearlman, Mary Quant, and Aaron Schwartz, who helped test the ballots in New York City, along with all the other Usability in Civic Life volunteers. Thanks!UX

Whitney Quesenbery has worked to improve the usability of elections since 2000, leading the UPA Usability in Civic Life project and participating on two U.S. federal advisory committees. By day, she brings stories from user research to design projects. She is co-author of the book Storytelling for User Experience.

Dana Chisnell has helped thousands of people learn how to make better design decisions by giving them skills to gain knowledge about the people using the designs. She is co-author, with Jeff Rubin, of Handbook of Usability Testing.

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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 2, 2011.

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