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Ballot Forms

By Daivd C. Kimball and Martha Kroph

Ballots are one of the most important forms in a functioning democracy. Poorly designed ballots can confuse voters, causing Election Day problems and leading to endless lawsuits over the election outcomes. Yet for too long, ballot design has been largely ignored in the United States. In the past eight years, federal and state legislative efforts have focused on ways in which we can make the act of voting more “usable.” These efforts—such as the Help America Vote Act passed by Congress in 2002—have focused on new voting technology as the main way to solve election problems. Since then, state governments have rushed to buy new voting equipment. Some purchased electronic voting machines that resemble ATMs. Others bought optical scan systems where voters mark paper ballots that are read by a computer scanner.

Yet all voting technologies are undermined if the ballot is poorly designed. In each general election in the United States, thousands of ballots are miscast because of poorly designed ballots.

In real elections we measure the number of “residual votes”—the difference between the number of ballots cast and the number of valid votes counted. Residual votes can be the result of under votes (accidentally or intentionally not selecting any candidate) or over votes (selecting too many candidates, usually by mistake). Other studies observe subjects voting in controlled tests and note how many mistakes they make (for example, voting for the wrong candidate or for too many candidates). Poorly designed ballots are a leading cause of voting mistakes in controlled tests and residual votes in real elections.

After noting these dreary findings, the good news is that election officials, researchers, and advocates are starting to pay more attention to ballot design. We have had the good fortune to join a growing interdisciplinary community of usability and design professionals, election officials, political scientists, and legal experts interested in ballot design and other usability issues related to voting in and administering elections. UPA and AIGA members are interested in applying usability and design principles to ballots and other election materials. Political scientists are interested in the factors that influence voters. Legal advocates want to ensure that every vote counts. Election officials want to avoid Election Day problems and lawsuits. There is a shared interest in achieving fair and efficient elections. It has been a wonderful learning experience for us to see how other disciplines view the act of voting.

We recently worked with a group of experts from each of these fields on a report, Better Ballots, produced by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. The report notes many common ballot design problems and includes guidelines for designing good ballots for any type of voting equipment. Many of us in the Brennan Center task force presented the report to local election officials in several states before the 2008 election. Presentations included instructions on how officials could conduct their own usability tests. Design for Democracy, a component of AIGA, has advised state and local jurisdictions on election design issues for many years. Design for Democracy recently published a report on Effective Designs for the Administration of Federal Elections for the U. S. Election Assistance Commission. We have worked with many election officials who want to make real improvements.

If elections are to accurately reflect the will of the people, then ballots should be designed so that all voters can easily understand and use them. We hope to keep moving toward that goal

About the Authors
David C. Kimball is associate professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He is the co-author of Why Americans Split Their Tickets, with Barry Burden. His research and teaching interests include voting and elections, political parties, and interest groups. He received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University.

Dr. Martha Kropf is assistant professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She previously worked at the University of Maryland Survey Research Center and the University of Missouri-Kansas City before coming to UNCC. She has published her work on elections and voting behavior in scholarly journals such as Public Opinion Quarterly.

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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 2, 2009.

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