Ballot Design Affects Your Vote
Clear voting instructions can influence elections and clear ballot design can help people mark their ballots accurately.
That’s why the federal voting systems guidelines (VVSG 2005) include a requirement stating, “The voting machine or related materials shall provide clear instructions and assistance to allow voters to successfully execute and cast their ballots independently.” The draft revisions (VVSG 1.1) go further and call for instructions that follow “best practices for plain language.”
Compare these two instructions, and see which one you think is clearer.
Before plain language
This notice takes 96 words to explain how to mark your ballot in wordy, complex sentences. The text is centered, and the most important information is not only last, but in all capital letters, making it harder to read.
If you tear, deface, or make a mistake and wrongfully mark any ballot you must return it to the election board and receive a new ballot or set of ballots. To vote for a person whose name is printed on the ballot darken the oval at the left of the person’s name. To vote for a person whose name is not printed on the ballot write the person’s name in the blank space, if any is provided, and darken the oval to the left.
TO VOTE, DARKEN THE OVAL NEXT TO YOUR CHOICE, LIKE THIS (*)
After plain language
These revised instructions are more direct, take only 60 words, begin with the most commonly needed instruction, and end with how to correct a mistake: a much more logical and visually appealing structure.
|To vote, fill in the oval next to your choice, like this: (*)
To voter for a person whose name is not on the ballot, write the person’s full name
in the blank space, and fill in the oval next to it.
If you make a mistake or want to change your vote, as a poll worker for a new ballot.
In every election, researchers have found evidence that poor instruction and confusing design make a difference. And in every election, we find new examples, as election officials ignore best practices for plain language and for usability testing before each election.
In the 2010 New York City election, voters faced inaccurate ballots that told them use the oval above or next to the candidate, when the real oval is below the name. Voters who follow the directions and choose the oval above the candidate’s name will actually be voting for a different candidate than they intend. This might not seem like a plain language problem: the instructions are perfectly understandable. However, they don’t match the ballot design.
The situation is improved slightly because these same instructions are printed in tiny text on the back of the ballot. However, this placement ignores best practice guidelines that instructions should be placed immediately before the contests where they apply. By comparing ballot designs to errors in elections, University of Missouri political scientists David C. Kimball and Martha Kropf showed that the placement of the instructions affects errors. Ginny Redish’s review of best practices in plain language agrees.
Better Ballots, a report by the Brennan Center, examined actual election results and found several cases where poor instructions had an effect on the election. For one dramatic example, in the 2008 primary in Los Angeles, California, long, confusing instructions led over 12,000 voters to skip a step: when they failed to fill in an extra oval indicating their party, their votes in the presidential primary were lost.
It’s not just instructions for how to mark the ballot that cause problems. In 2008, absentee ballots played a critical role in Minnesota’s election for Senator. Many ballots were disqualified on technicalities even before the ballot was counted. The revised instructions, created with the help of the UPA Usability in Civic Life project, was a finalist in the 2010 ClearMark Awards.
Ginny Redish and Dana Chisnell’s research into the impact of plain language on elections showed its importance: 82% of the people in their study preferred a ballot with plain language instructions, and (by a small margin) participants voted more accurately on it.
|Preference||# of participants||% of participants|
|Ballot A – traditional language||4||9%|
|Ballot B – plain language||37||82%|
Statistically significant, p<.001
Elections are at the heart of democracy. If voters don’t understand how to mark their ballots or return their absentee ballots, their voices may be lost. As the Center for Plain Language’s slogan says: “Plain language is a civil right.”
For more reading
- Better Ballots by Lawrence Norden, David Kimball, Whitney Quesenbery and Margaret Chen. The Brennan Center, July 2008
- 2010 ClearMark Award Winners: Absentee Ballot Instructions for Unregistered Voters, Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State Before and After (Presentation about this project from Clarity2010)
- Guidelines for Writing Clear Instructions and Messages for Voters and Poll Workers by Janice Redish. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), February 2006.
- Report of Findings: Use of Language in Ballot Instructions, by Janice (Ginny) Redish, Dana E. Chisnell, Ethan Newby, Sharon J. Laskowski, Svetlana Z. Lowry, NIST IR 7556, May 2009
- Ballot Design and Unrecorded Votes on Paper-Based Ballots by David Kimball & Martha Kropf. 69 PUBLIC OPINION QUARTERLY 522-526, 2005 (subscription required)
News articles on the NYC Ballot
- Center Press Release: First WonderMark Award Submission: NY City Election Ballot
- New York City Nominated for Ballot Bungle Booby Prize – Fox News (October 28, 2010)
- Vague ballot directions leave voters confused by Jordan Rocci, Washington Square News (November 3, 2010)
- Ballot Designs Across the Country Ten Years After ‘Hanging Chads’ – Interview with Jessica Friedman on The TakeAway, NPR (November 2, 2010)
- Ballot Battle - Interview with Larry Norden, the Brennan Center on the Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC (November 2, 2010)