Can You Understand Your Ballot?

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Polling places are open for business all around California. There are 34 candidates competing for the seat of U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, who’s retiring. Some counties found ways to cram all 34 names on to one page. But in other places, the list takes up two pages of the ballot. And that has some election watchers nervous.

This year’s voter information guide has red and blue added for visibility. “We just assume that everybody knows how to vote and it’s just not true,” says Whitney Quesenbery. “The civic literacy gaps are huge and we have to work constantly to bridge them.” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Can you understand your ballot?

Tuesday is primary election day in California and if you open your sample ballot you’ll see a blizzard of people and things to vote for.

Besides voting for presidential candidate, there’s also a ballot measure as well as races for Congress, judiciary and a Senate seat that has 34 candidates competing to succeed U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer! (Candidates include an environmental healing consultant, stay-at-home-dad/attorney, internet start-up CEO, and aerospace factory worker).

There are so many candidates that in many counties, the names are spread across two pages — and that is a problem, says user experience designer Whitney Quesenbery. She’s co-director of the Center for Civic Design which analyzes the “whole voter journey” from registering to vote to figuring out the ballot and how to use the voting machines.

“One of the worst things you can do is split a contest that is started in one column and finish it in the next column. Because what happens is people see ‘Vote for Senate,’ they see a list of names and they pick one. And then they go to the next column and they see another list of names and think, ‘well, this must be another thing to vote for,’ and they pick one there too. And when that happens their vote doesn’t count.”

Turns out that up to a third of voters made this error in pre-election tests. So Quesenbery and her team worked with election officials to clean up the design of the ballot.

Now you’ll see candidates’ names printed in bold, simple sans-serif typeface. There are red warning signs reminding you to vote for only one Senate candidate. And before you even get to the two-page list of Senate candidates, there’s an illustration of the layout on the previous page to alert you to the perilous voter challenge ahead.  

Two page senate race
Election officials worked to make sure voters would not accidentally vote for two Senate candidates, nullifying their vote. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Quesenbery recommends election officials, who generally lay out the ballots in-house, sometimes with help from a graphic designer, put spacing around the text so it is not “cramped into the page and squeezed together.” She says sans-serif faces — “a good Arial or Helvetica” — are much more legible than “some decorative font.”

The user experience expert is now helping LA County officials with an overhaul of their election material design. Quesenbery says she threw herself into election material design after the wake-up call of the “hanging chads” fiasco in Florida in 2000.

“Like a lot of us, we all woke up in November of 2000 and went, ‘what happened?’ And when we started looking at all that news coming out of Florida, we realized that really it was a design problem and it actually became the motto of the Center for Civic Design: ‘Democracy is a Design Problem.’ I can’t solve voter turnout. I can’t solve the crazy attack ads of political parties. But the thing that I can do with my skills as a UX researcher and user experience designer. . . is to design things better . . . . and maybe in some tiny way that helps increase turnout because we want people to vote.”

You may have noticed, by the way, that this year’s voter information guide was not as gray as usual. In an effort to get voters to notice it in their mail, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla had color — blue and red — added to the cover. He said the extra cost – 2.6 cents per guide, or about $320,000 – was worth it to encourage voting.

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Image courtesy of Center for Civic Design (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)