How to design ballots, great report

December 4, 2008, [MD]

IssueLab, whose energetic staff member Lisa Brooks I met at Open Ed 2008, is a place for non-profits to share their research. Having worked at CARE Indonesia, I certainly know first hand that much great research is produced, and never shared, often even lost among staff changes and USB keys, so this is a very valuable initiative. Even more so, since they have also started an OER Repository.

They just sent me a copy of their “annual research round-up“, featuring their most downloaded research, the oldest research ever deposited, etc. Among their staff picks, I found a very interesting report on the design of ballots for the US voting system. Only people living under a stone could have missed all the problems with recounts and voting problems in 2004, and although improved, there were many issues noted in 2008 as well. It’s easy for outsiders to make glib comments about “how hard can it be to put a cross in a box”, and “those stupid Americans”, but it turns out that some of these ballot boxes are very complex and confusing. These issues of course tend to disproportionally affect poor, older, less-educated or minority voters, which makes dealing with them extremely important.

Al Franken ran for Senator of Minnesota, and the tally was so close that it triggered an automatic recount, which is still going on. Minnesota Public Radio presented a number of the ballots being challenged, with pictures, and this was the first time I actually saw an American ballot, and some of the problems that could occur.

The report “Better ballots” produced by the Brennan Center for Justice, is a really interesting read. Extremely well written and nice on the eyes, it lays out simple principles for how to design a user-friendly ballot, and does so with many examples of the actual ballots, supported with statistics showing that the precincts using certain ballots have much higher rejection rates than the national average. They also go through relevant election laws, for example in New York, that run counter to good ballot design.

An interesting read, and I am sure human interface designers working on software usability or print designers would have something to learn from this as well.


Stian Håklev December 4, 2008 Toronto, Canada
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