Getting better at ballots
November 1, 2020 8:22 AM   Subscribe

Design makes a difference. Some simple changes to US ballot designs would prevent unnecessary errors. "Here's a typical mail-in ballot package a voter might see, it is rife with design problems that cause voters to make mistakes and overlook races." More info here at the Center for Civic Design.
posted by storybored (36 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
There have been suggestions for design improvements to ballots for years — since at least the “hanging chad” debacle. A more cynically minded person might conclude that poor / frustrating design is a feature, not a bug.
posted by heyitsgogi at 9:19 AM on November 1, 2020 [28 favorites]


So, her main problem was that for whatever reason not that many voters decided to vote for her, but it probably didn't help Elizabeth Warren's primary campaign that, say, in Tennessee they listed the primary candidates alphabetically, and Warren and Yang and a couple more dropped off the front page on the voting machine.

I'm not mad at the no-hopers who actually ran a campaign, failed, and dropped out before election day but not before getting on the ballot; I'm mad at the fringe perennial candidates who get on the ballot every time for no damn reason.

BTW, here's an image of the butterfly ballot. Know how to vote for who you want?
posted by Huffy Puffy at 9:27 AM on November 1, 2020 [3 favorites]


I wish there were more info in general about what will invalidate your ballot. Every time I've voted, I have seen a race I forgot to prepare for -- a judgeship, a board membership, or maybe a proposition. If it's not clear to me how to vote, I panic a little: if I skip this vote, will they throw the whole ballot out? And if I'm that concerned, I have to make up my mind really quick.

This is a really dumb use of the franchise, and this year I have made a point to read up on the ballot.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:28 AM on November 1, 2020 [7 favorites]


if I skip this vote, will they throw the whole ballot out?

It's my understanding that nowhere in the US is an incompletely filled-out ballot invalid; they just don't count any vote for you in a section you leave blank. If it is incorrectly filled out, e.g. you place multiple votes for candiates where instructions are to vote for one, or if you place both a straight-ticket vote and a vote in individual partisan races, then I think its treatment is determined by locality: some will invalidate the specific conflicting votes and others will invalidate the ballot as a whole.
posted by jackbishop at 9:47 AM on November 1, 2020 [4 favorites]


That butterfly ballot linked above is about the worst possible design. In 2000 there were at least 2,000 votes mistakenly made for racist anti-semite Pat Buchanan. This is determined by comparing Buchanan results to non-butterfly absentee ballots in the same county and also comparing Buchanan result to over 3000 other counties with Buchanan on the ballot.

This error of 2000 votes would have been enough to easily put Al Gore in the White House when the final "official" margin was 537.
posted by JackFlash at 10:10 AM on November 1, 2020 [12 favorites]


I don't want to hear about good design from someone who thinks scrolling to the right via a completely nonstandard button is an example of it.
posted by darksasami at 10:27 AM on November 1, 2020 [39 favorites]


I couldn't even find a button just kept touching the page in random places trying to get something to happen...
posted by one4themoment at 10:33 AM on November 1, 2020


> I don't want to hear about good design from someone who thinks scrolling to the right via a completely nonstandard button is an example of it.

Owned.
posted by glonous keming at 10:42 AM on November 1, 2020 [6 favorites]


Do any of the re-designs for the US ballot touch on the need to vote for nearly everything? Electing representatives to your law-making body is one thing. But voting for judges and sheriffs and DAs? Attorneys General and Secretaries of State? Auditors? Mine Inspectors?

De-politizing these roles would do a lot to make a better ballot
posted by thecjm at 11:09 AM on November 1, 2020 [10 favorites]


There should be a short form that lets people choose by party, which is what somewhere between a quarter and a third of voters say they do anyway. Let those people get it done faster and with fewer errors.
posted by pracowity at 11:43 AM on November 1, 2020 [1 favorite]


From what I’ve read (e.g., here) the inclusion of a “straight-party-ticket” ballot short-cut option favors Democrats. Which is why Republican-controlled legislatures and elections boards don’t like to include it.
posted by darkstar at 11:45 AM on November 1, 2020 [11 favorites]


19 single-sentence click-through panels with large, unnecessary images is not what I'd call an example of good design. The actual advice with regard to ballots, though, sounds pretty good.
posted by eotvos at 11:58 AM on November 1, 2020 [6 favorites]


I'm guessing that the person who designed that complicated webpage is not the author of the article.
posted by Lanark at 12:15 PM on November 1, 2020 [15 favorites]


Someone should take on a redesign of the electoral fusion ballots we have in Queens. (Though I doubt they will, because those in power have a vested interest in confusion.) That was the most confusing ballot I've ever used in my life. The instructions are poor bordering on nonexistent, available in 5 languages but still nonsensical, and they don't really tell you that instructions are on the folder. If you have a mail-in ballot, you really don't get full instructions whatsoever. I requested a mail-in ballot and still chose to vote early in person for a few reasons, including that I don't trust the president not to try to steal the election and cut off mail-in ballot counts early, I don't trust the U.S. Postal Service to get my ballot there securely or on time anymore, one of my cats bit and punctured a corner of my ballot, I wanted to vote and be able to know I'd at least done my best...and I was truly confused by the section where you vote for judges and couldn't find a good online resource that explained how it worked in detail.

I asked a poll worker questions to understand the judges section, because the design visually suggests a contest of some sort on each line, whereas in fact you can choose multiple people on the same line as long as the names differ, up to 9 judges total. I'll confess that even though they told me I could select multiple people on the same line, I didn't—of course, that also lined up with my research. There was almost no info or statements available on one woman who ran under three parties, as many judges seem to do here. So for both reasons, I avoided voting for her entirely. As we just saw with Amy Coney Barrett, the judges we elect matter greatly, and I'm not going to vote for anyone I'm not sure about anymore. (I'm kind of ashamed that I treated it like it didn't matter for as long as I did when I lived in St. Louis.)

But yeah, the way this ballot is set up seems prone to error in a number of ways and potentially disenfranchising—as well as a contributor to long lines at polling places as people try to figure it out. It's a great (terrible) example of how translating something doesn't automatically make it understandable.
posted by limeonaire at 12:19 PM on November 1, 2020 [2 favorites]


Just for comparison, here's what a Canadian federal election ballot looks like. In person, that's it. By mail there some additional instructions and a certification to sign but the ballot itself stays simple. Mark one X.

The NYT "simplified" ballot looks needlessly complicated to me. Half the problem is that you are electing your dogcatcher on the same ballot you elect your senator.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:20 PM on November 1, 2020 [9 favorites]


And complicating "straight ticket" voting, some places (like here in New York) have fusion voting, where a candidate can be on more than one party line, which I think further confuses people. What happens if you fill in the vote for the same candidate on two different party lines? I doubt most people have looked up the answer, 'cause it certainly isn't printed on the ballot.

In addition to that, there are laws about political appointments to things like the state ethics commission, which has rules about what party certain appointees can be from. (I believe this goes by party registration, but I could be wrong. What if a registered Democrat won with the majority of their votes on the Working Families line?)

And again on top of that, I've seen cases (usually only in real small local elections) where someone is the only candidate, but endorsed on almost every line. Like, you're the only one running, but what does it mean to vote for you on the Democratic line, vs. the Republican, Conservative, Libertarian, Working Families, Independence, or Rent is Too Damn High party?
posted by mrgoat at 12:22 PM on November 1, 2020 [1 favorite]


I saw my wife’s Michigan mail-in ballot and thought for a moment that it must have been upside down, because all of the text for the ballot options was right-aligned, like the page layout was originally done in Arabic and they just replaced the text. Absolutely wild stuff.
posted by DoctorFedora at 1:54 PM on November 1, 2020 [1 favorite]


Here in Denmark, if there are different elections on the same day, we get different ballots for them. I can see how that could be a mess if you have to vote for a dog catcher and a sheriff and a judge the same day you vote for President, but maybe that could get people thinking if there might be a better way of doing things. Nah, strike that last part.
We rarely get more than two ballots though, since the elections are spread out over the years, with local and regional governments every four years in November, EU elections every five years in early summer, and national government and referendums at a more (but not entirely) random pace. The instructions are not on the ballot, but on a poster above the table where you are voting. I think if you vote by mail you get a separate piece of paper with the instructions on them.
There are only paper ballots and they are counted by hand. I think there was a discussion about electronic voting, but then 2016 happened and no-one wanted it anymore.

We do have elections for school boards, parish councils (our church is a state church) and well, lots of other things, but they are on their own schedules and the voting commissions are not involved.

I love Election Day, specially in November. You meet all your neighbors in the line, there is candy for the children and everyone is happy and excited. We (and many, many others) make fried pork belly with a parsley sauce for dinner because pork has the same connotations in regard to politics as in the US.
posted by mumimor at 2:09 PM on November 1, 2020 [10 favorites]


British elections are definitely old school. Example of a general election ballot (for your area's member of parliament). They're counted by hand, obviously.

The rules, and returning officers will also count any ballot that show clear intent, usually in consultation with candidates for very edge cases. Voting for more than one candidate is rejected, as is signing your own name on it (the poll should be anonymous), but accepted votes include circling the candidate name, using a tick or smiley face, and can include hashing out your first mark and writing a clear 2nd one. Or in one case, drawing a penis inside a box.

I know the UK is only about the size of Michigan, but we do have almost the population of California and Texas combined, so it can't be beyond possibility to have clearer ballots; when we need to elect multiple positions at the same time (council, MP, MEP etc) we use.. different coloured pieces of paper.
posted by Absolutely No You-Know-What at 2:10 PM on November 1, 2020 [2 favorites]


On the other hand, although we've had issues with some dodgy boundary changes, and campaign spending breaching election limits, we don't have one party working very hard to disenfranchise as many as possible of their opponents and even destroy the voting process itself. Good luck on Tuesday (and beyond).
posted by Absolutely No You-Know-What at 2:44 PM on November 1, 2020 [1 favorite]


I voted in my state election here in Australia on the weekend. Basically looked like this. Like mumior, we get a different ballot, in a different colour, for different parts of the government. The most complicated ballot we get is the senate ticket, which can get a bit out of control once the minor parties get going. You'll note the big line across the top of that whopper, though. You have the option of numbering the bottom bit in order of preferences, from one to whatever, or you can go "fuck it" and just pick one lot above the line with a "1".

Even after dealing with some monster senate tickets (because I'm in Queensland and we do crackpot independent and minority party senators with gusto here) that US ballot in the example is ridiculous. I'm pretty thankful for the graphics, actually, because I've never seen a US ballot so it's pretty illustrative to me.
posted by Jilder at 3:57 PM on November 1, 2020 [5 favorites]


accepted votes include circling the candidate name, using a tick or smiley face, and can include hashing out your first mark and writing a clear 2nd one. Or in one case, drawing a penis inside a box.

I believe there was also a case of a ballot which had the word "c*nt" written next to every candidate except one. It was duly counted as a vote for Mr Presumably-Not-A-C*nt.
posted by Cheerwell Maker at 4:21 PM on November 1, 2020 [4 favorites]


Definitely not a bug, it's a feature. Politicians want to be able to discount votes, and they want to frustrate you, aggravate you, make you feel dumb for being confused by the layout.
Notice how polling places are so easy to get to.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:34 PM on November 1, 2020 [2 favorites]


AKA: Jim Crow 2.0.
posted by darkstar at 6:11 PM on November 1, 2020 [3 favorites]


"Good design is the secret to better democracy"

Right, and this one weird trick will melt away your belly fat.

Is there something like Engineer's Disease but for Designers?
posted by dmh at 3:47 AM on November 2, 2020 [1 favorite]


dmh: Is there something like Engineer's Disease but for Designers?

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

If you are an expert in something, it's easy to see problems with a process viewed through the narrow mailslot of your expertise.

Does that mean "Good design is THE secret to better democracy" (emphasis mine)?

Maybe not, but for the example given - shoddy, or worse, intentionally obfuscated ballot design - good design is surely A secret to improve the process.
posted by Paladin1138 at 4:33 AM on November 2, 2020


Also, for what it's worth, justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow's example of a Canadian Federal ballot is probably the most complex example they could have found - most ridings won't have nearly that many choices.

I suspect for most of Canada outside of Quebec, there are only going to be 3, maybe 4 options. Every one of them probably came to your house at some point to talk to you.
posted by Paladin1138 at 4:36 AM on November 2, 2020


‘It’s Like You Want to Stop People From Voting’: How U.S. Elections Look Abroad NYTimes video

One thing Trump has done for America is make it very, very clear what is going on, for all to see.
posted by mumimor at 4:59 AM on November 2, 2020 [3 favorites]


>"Good design is the secret to better democracy"

>Right, and this one weird trick will melt away your belly fat.


It's not hard to believe that in the absence of the butterfly ballot, that there would be no GW Bush, no Dick Cheney, no Iraq War, no millions of refugees in the Middle East, no millions dead. It would be quite a different world today.
posted by JackFlash at 7:00 AM on November 2, 2020 [5 favorites]


The butterfly effect.
posted by Ahmad Khani at 8:50 AM on November 2, 2020 [6 favorites]


Ballot design is definitely one thing I would prefer brunch to. Like, Australians do this properly- why can't Americans? And, given what happened in Iowa with the "Shadow" app, it really makes me reach for my, erm, pitchfork.
posted by Greener_pastures at 1:34 AM on November 3, 2020


why can't Americans

The core problem is the number of elected offices.

I don't think Australians are trying to elect a federal legislator, a different federal legislator, a state governor, a state lieutenant governor, a state attorney general, a state secretary of state, a state comptroller or treasurer, a state board of education, a state agriculture leader, a state legislator, a different state legislator, a state insurance official, a state judge or reapproval of a state judge, another state judge or reapproval, a county legislator, a county executive, a municipal legislator, a municipal executive, a school board, a local judge or their reapproval, another local judge or their reapproval, another local judge or their reapproval, a state ballot proposition, another state ballot proposition, another state ballot proposition, another state ballot proposition, another state ballot proposition, another state ballot proposition, another state ballot proposition, another state ballot proposition, another state ballot proposition, another state ballot proposition, another state ballot proposition, another state ballot proposition, another state ballot proposition, another state ballot proposition, another state ballot proposition, another state ballot proposition, a local ballot proposition, another local ballot proposition, another local ballot proposition, another local ballot proposition, another local ballot proposition, another local ballot proposition, another local ballot proposition, and approval of a school system budget all at the same time.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 3:34 AM on November 3, 2020 [3 favorites]


I think I've identified your problem, and it's not the ballots.
posted by Absolutely No You-Know-What at 11:07 AM on November 3, 2020 [2 favorites]


This reminds me (of course) of Knuth.

But the perfect example is a fictional redesign of a plane boarding pass:

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/42/53/b2/4253b230072e22afa89a597f36e3bd2e.jpg

THIS is perfect.
posted by MacD at 3:27 PM on November 4, 2020


I second the opinions about NY ballots. I’m an Election Day poll worker (10yrs). I see all these problems described.

I grew up in SF BA and just before I left I recall a new ballot format—draw line between two bars. I recall that one fondly, compared to the Scan-Tron-style we have here.
posted by xtian at 7:40 AM on November 6, 2020


Unfortunately they seem to have gone back to the Scantron bubble style for this latest election.
posted by Lexica at 9:12 AM on November 6, 2020


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