Rhode Island Artscape: Designing Better Ballots

Feb 27, 2014

In Rhode Island a group of design students barely old enough to vote are working on projects that could potentially affect the future of Presidential elections.

For this month’s Artscape, Rhode Island Public Radio’s John Bender profiles a class that is trying to tackle the problem of a better ballot.

A ballot secrecy sleeve redesigned by RISD students.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

On the third floor of a building in downtown Providence, a group of a dozen or so students from the Rhode Island School of Design, also known as RISD are giving their final presentations for a class called VoteLab: Designing for Democracy.

The group presenting worked specifically to design a more user-friendly ballot. 

“Welcome to the very first state of the ballot address.  It all began on one stuffy day in the sunshine state where the electorate of Palm Beach County shuffled to polling stations for the general election of 2000.”

The class was conceived by a pair of seniors who spent their summer researching the issue with the Rhode Island Board of Elections. They felt the issue was so important an entire class ought to be devoted to it.

But why is design in elections so important? Well, maybe you’ve voted.

Now picture it. Try to remember walking into the polling station.  You get your ballot. You fill it out. You submit it. And you’ve voted, right?  Well yes, if you voted correctly.  “But wait,” you say, “of course I’ve voted correctly.”  Well not so fast.

“Everybody makes mistakes when they vote,” said Dana Chisnell, she’s studies design in elections at MIT.

“Smart people, not-so-smart people, wealthy people, every race.  You name it.  Everybody makes mistakes.  Most people are not aware that they’re making these mistakes,” said Chisnell.

She said the problem with most voting ballots is the way they’re designed.  How ballots look goes a long way in how accurately citizens vote.  Essentially, poorly designed ballots means less people fill out them out correctly.

And as the RISD students said the origin story of better ballot design really did begin one day in the sunshine state.  Election Day 2000 to be exact, during the now-infamous George Bush, Al Gore presidential election.

Florida was buried in endless vote recounts and the Supreme Court finally had to step in.  That debacle, said Chisnell, stemmed from problems with the ballot.  Jurisdictions throughout the country used something called a butterfly ballot. It opened like a book, with a punch card full of perforated boxes down the middle.  A list of choices on the left side each aligned to a specific punch card hole.

“And so when you make your choice it you press a pin through that little hole, and it pushes out the chad.  The little perforated box.  Or it’s supposed to push out the chad,” said Chisnell.

You remember chads.  The question as to what counted as a vote, hanging chads, pregnant chads.  But that wasn’t the only problem. Elections officials in several communities, including Palm Beach County, made one key decision that changed everything.  They increased the type font to make it easier for their older population.  That’s right they made the letters bigger.

“Making the type bigger is a decision that any trained professional designer would have made. Older people; bigger type,” said Chisnell.

But the decision to make the letters bigger had unintended consequences because of the nature of the butterfly ballot.

“This meant that the contests overflowed onto the two page spread, which gives you an interlaced effect.  So instead of having all the left hand ones line up with the sequential holes it’s every other hole, and on the right hand side it’s the alternate holes.  So a lot of people messed up,” said Chisnell.

And this monumental mess-up led to a wave of change working to ensure that voters filled out their ballots correctly.

Anisa Holmes is one of those RISD design students who’s taking up that challenge.

“I’m a junior in the RISD/Brown university dual degree program.         

That means, by the way, she was between seven and nine years old during the 2000 election.

“I think I remember a little of that yeah, I remember it being in the news,” said Holmes.

She worked with two other students, to redesign Rhode Island’s ballot.

A very standard ballot said Chisnell.  It’s a large rectangular sheet of paper—maybe twelve by eighteen inches.  At the top of the page, in big block letters it said Official Election Ballot, State of Rhode Island, followed by instructions for filling it out.  And below that are the races and the candidates. 

With one look, Chisnell finds plenty of potential for voters to mess up. but, overcoming the design problems is the easy part, said Dana Chisnell. There’s a bigger challenge.

The number one thing really is legislation.  There’s legislation on the books in every state, in almost every county that dictates the wording and design of the ballot.  In New England it’s very common to include in the election code what the instructions say. To the letter,” said Chisnell.

These election rules dictate everything.

“The typeface, the size of the type, the grid on the page for the layout, all of that.”

Chisnell said until recently the main objective of ballot design, was to follow these rules, not necessarily to make it user-friendly.

All these legislative rules make it difficult to change or improve any ballots.  It requires legislatures to formally adopt new guidelines.  So Holmes and her group had to work with Rhode Island’s rules.

It’s kind of like what professional designer would encounter with any client: here are the parameters, now make it look good.

“So some initial problems that we pinpointed were the use of all caps throughout a lot of it,” said student Anisa Holmes.

On the original local ballot, the labels for the races and the last names of the candidates are all capital letters.

All caps can sometimes imply importance, but it’s more difficult to when it’s overused, said Chisnell.

“Having all caps basically makes all the letters look the same. So visually all caps just looks like a gray block.”

The labels were also all aligned to the center.

“Centering is for wine labels and wedding invitations Centering actually makes it harder to read,” said Chisnell.

It’s harder because we’ve trained our eyes to read new lines from left to right.

So Holmes and her group nixed the all-caps and realigned the labels to the left.

The directions at top for how to fill out the ballot were also long and confusing.

“We talk about the Goldilocks problem of having too much or too little of instructions,” said Holmes.

The conundrum is this. Too much information confuses and intimidates voters.  But not reading directions is one of the biggest reasons why voters fill out ballots wrong in the first place.  The RISD group had to work with the existing text, and make them more intuitive.

Currently the instructions are unnecessarily numbered, said Holmes.  Numbers would be important if they were steps in a process, but they’re not.

“When you see a list of numbers you think  oh I have to do this first and then this, and when the text is that small and that cramped that’s kind of overwhelming,  you tend to skip the instructions and just go to the voting which is more important.  But obviously the instructions are important so if we can get voters to look at the instructions then that’s good for everyone,” said Holmes.

Instead the group separated the instructions into separate columns; thus making each an individual direction.

Of course many of the mistakes voters make could stem from of a lack of civics education on top design flaws.  Of all the people the class polled during testing; only one realized that straight party voting meant your choice counted for one party in all contests.

We ask a lot of our voters, said Dana Chisnell, but she adds that making mistakes on ballots costs the state and the country.

“You can see that if someone votes twice on this ballot, or someplace they shouldn’t.  Someone has to count that.  So if you can design a ballot to prevent that happening, that saves a lot of time and money that gets the results out sooner,” said Chisnell.

Of course, more than that, good design ensures that our democracy is working.  Promising each voter, that the candidate they wanted, was the candidate they chose.

Rhode Island could conceivably adopt RISD’s ballot redesign, but it would new legislation to make that happen.

Despite the slew of challenges with ballots across the country Dana Chisnell is encouraged by people like the students in the RISD class, and believes positive changes are coming.

“I’m very hopeful. I think that when we get to 2016 things are going to look a lot different in a lot of places from how they looked in 2008.  So check back with me then.”