Florida’s infamous “hanging chads” from the 2000 election weren’t the result of a clandestine conspiracy to suppress voters, but rather a consequence of bad design. The Palm Beach County election director increased the ballot’s font size in an attempt to better serve elderly votes, which forced the ballot into a two-page, “butterfly” format that confused voters. Though the mishap almost precipitated a constitutional crisis, ballot designs have hardly improved since then. In fact, according to The Brennan Center, between the 2008 and 2010 elections, half a million ballots were rejected because of poor ballot design.
In this regard, mail-in ballots offer a new opportunity for election administrators, and a whole new set of challenges for those charged with designing them. Instead of investing resources in physical poll sites and employees to staff them, a perennially difficult endeavor, mail-in ballots bring democracy directly to the electorate. Already, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado rely almost exclusively on this system. In all states, absentee voters are sent a mail-in ballot (though 20 states require them to provide an excuse for why they can’t vote in-person, such as travel plans or a medical condition).
Between the 2008 and 2010 elections, half a million ballots were rejected because of poor ballot design.
As voting by mail becomes ever more common, some worry that voters may be be prone to ballot-invalidating errors without poll workers nearby to assist. And considering that direct mail as a whole has a 4.4% response rate, design plays a major role in ensuring the ballots are not only filled out correctly, but even opened in the first place.
To better understand these unique challenges, we spoke to Whitney Quesenbery, the co-director of the Center for Civic Design, who helped design the new mail-in ballot that will be available to all counties in California starting in 2020.
Vary your color palette to avoid confusion
In the California ballot design, all outgoing ballot envelopes are striped with blue, a color she hopes that voters will eventually associate automatically with ballots. For the envelopes that voters return, the team offers three additional colors, which will help postal officials and election administrators sort the mountains of mail. “Let’s say you have a county with a special election that overlaps with your general election,” she says. “Then, they can use a second color so they can tell the envelopes apart when they come in. Also, sometimes two counties share the same U.S. Postal regional center. In that case, if one’s using green and one’s using purple, that purple one jumps out.”
Make your ballot look official—not flashy
Though direct-mail has higher response rates than emails, Quesenbery was still aware that most of a mailbox’s contents are thrown directly into the trash. “California mails out thousands of pieces of paper,” she says. “Wouldn’t it be nice if they were worth the cost of doing so?”
To create a product that would instantly be recognized as an important, government-issued document, Quesenbery drew from her research about how voters get information. “It’s usually not so fancy,” they told her. “It’s not glossy print. It’s not over-the-top design.” Along those lines, they included a simple but recognizable seal and a clear heading in big letters: “This is your vote-by-mail envelope.”
Ensure that each county can comply with its local laws
Because ballots aren’t standardized at the federal level, each state is free to design its own, and counties often add their own requirements. For example, twenty-eight jurisdictions in California are covered under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, meaning they must offer all voting materials, including the ballot, in a second (or third) language.
To that end, Quesenbery and her team left white space on the back of each envelope in order for each county to add its own specifications. In fact, Quesenbery would like to free up even more of the envelope by eliminating some of the legal jargon, like the line that must be signed if the voter designates another person to deliver her ballot.
Simplify Your Copy for the 43% of voters who read at a basic level
Quesenbery tells a story of her co-director working in an adult literacy center and meeting a man they called Bill. “He spent about fifteen minutes reading the Bill of Rights page,” she says. “It was the first page after the front cover and table of contents because voters had told us, ‘This is important. It should be right up front.’ When he got to it, and he sounded out every word, then looked up and said, ‘I think this means I can vote.’”
The man had been convicted of a felony and didn’t know that a felony re-enfranchisement bill had passed. A woman from the League of Women Voters registered him on the spot, and Quesenbery thinks of Bill whenever she’s writing text. According to the federal government’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 13% of literate Americans can read no more than simple texts like recipes and road signs, and another 30% are around an 8th-grade level. They, too, deserve a vote.
Choose a Font Type for Accessibility
Quesenbery cringes at the ballots from states that mandate the words be written in all-caps because people with dyslexia are often taught to read by recognizing the shape of words, a more difficult task when everything appears as a black rectangle. Likewise, fonts with excessive ornamentation can be challenging for speakers of languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet. To remedy these problems, Quesenbery advocates a clear, sans-serif typeface, like Clearview or Arial. And, for the sake of everyone’s eyes, she says that 10-point should be the absolute smallest size.