How To Design Ballots If You Actually Want People To Vote

There’s a comprehensive report just out from the Brennan Center For Justice of NYU Law School that explains how that ol’ devil from 2000, poor ballot design, can have a negative impact on the right to vote, and shows how such outrages can be prevented. Here’s a quick summary:

American elections are marred by major design problems. As smartphones and computer tablets have convinced many people and businesses of the importance of good design and usability, elections have changed far more slowly.

•Poor design increases the risk of lost or misrecorded votes among all voters, but the risk is even greater for particular groups, including low-income voters and the elderly.

•As documented in this report, several hundred thousand votes were not counted in the 2008 and 2010 elections because of voter mistakes, in some cases affecting the outcome of critical contests.

•The rise of absentee and provisional voting since 2000 has only increased the importance of design in elections. We estimate that in the 2008 and 2010 general elections combined, as many as 400,000 people had their absentee or provisional ballot rejected because they made technical mistakes completing the forms or preparing and returning the envelope.

•There are simple measures election officials can take before November to cure design defects in ballots, voting machines, and voter instructions.

•We encourage election officials to review lost vote data from previous elections, conduct usability tests, and work with experts to find design problems and solutions before this November’s election.

Now all this sound advice depends on the interest in and willingness of election officials to take steps necessary to let people make their voting preferences known. And unfortunately, in this election more than others, you can’t take that for granted.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.