Ballot design: America’s elections depend on confusing, badly designed ballots. How to fix them.

Poorly Designed Ballots Could Have Cost Obama Re-election. How To Fix Them Before 2016.

Poorly Designed Ballots Could Have Cost Obama Re-election. How To Fix Them Before 2016.

The way things look.
Jan. 19 2013 9:45 AM

The Election Disaster That Wasn’t

America’s poorly designed ballots could have bungled the 2012 election. How we can fix them before 2016.

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Still, one could argue that foreign ballots do show us something: They show us what a mess American democracy is. That’s true. But generally, we wouldn’t want it any other way. Take the issue of local control. I like that states can do their own thing on some issues, and I hate it on others. But I’m not sure I’d trade it all in for, say, British-style centralization. Michael Svetlik, vice president of programs for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, an organization that assists democratic processes overseas, told me that despite the occasional catastrophes, American-style “local control results in a process that’s generally trusted. Elections run from Washington wouldn’t be trusted.”

On referendums, I like the aesthetics of a simple, short question. But I like the idea of giving voters lots of information, too. Switzerland has lots of ballot measures. Compare this Swiss ballot to this Massachusetts one. Design-wise, I prefer the Swiss one. Democracy-wise, I’m not so sure.

Massachussetts' state primary Democratic ballot, 2012; Swiss ballot for the popular referendum on November 2006.
Massachussetts's state primary Democratic ballot, 2012; Swiss ballot for the popular referendum on November 2006.

Courtesy; David Croll/

Then there’s the language issue. It’s good that America makes such an effort to encourage the political participation of its newest citizens. Many European countries have significant immigrant populations, so it’s reasonable to expect that some of their newer citizens would appreciate ballots in, say, Turkish. But in Germany, ballots are in German and … German. In Belgium and Switzerland, they’re in only their official languages. Read the language Congress used when it mandated minority languages on some ballots—it’s inspiring. And sure, we could print different ballots for different languages. But Whitney Quesenbery told me that immigrants often have different vocabularies in their first language and English. Comparing something in both languages can be essential to understanding what’s on the ballot, especially for referendums.

In short, American elections are messy at least in part because of our values: a strong belief in state and local control; a legal structure to match; a background distrust of national government; a desire to integrate new citizens; and a warm embrace of direct democracy, i.e., ballot measures. Our blanket refusal to learn from other countries is generally a handicap—but ballot design may be the exception(alism) that proves the rule.

This does not mean we shouldn’t improve our ballots. Far from it. It just means we’re largely on our own. And the good news is that America has lots of design experts, and since Florida 2000 they’ve been putting their talents to work. AIGA, the professional design association, has its Design for Democracy project, with which the U.S. Election Assistance Commission partnered on a massive 2005 report on ballot design [PDF]. The Brennan Center for Justice has published several major initiatives on ballot design—including Better Ballots (2008) and Better Design, Better Elections (2012)—that feature clear recommendations and checklists (the Ballot Design Checklist [PDF] is worth reading in full). And as design has become an increasingly important force in American culture generally, there’s been no shortage of proposals on how to either improve existing ballots or to start fresh.

The problem is that much of this best practice hasn’t yet been put into practice. That’s our fault. So here’s what each of us can do, at each tier of American democracy:


Federal. Ask Congress to set basic design standards for federal elections—loose enough to allow for regional variations. States wouldn’t necessarily have to match ballots for non-federal contests to these standards, but they might. Norden points out that federal “motor voter” laws, which allow citizens to register to vote when applying for a driver’s license, technically don’t apply to state elections—but in practice, states go along.

State. Absent a federal stick, state governments need to either mandate good ballot design or get out of the business of shackling local authorities with ridiculous rules about capital letters, line centering, and ballot initiative phrasing. Write to your state legislators (find them here) and ask what they’re doing to follow the Brennan Center’s Ballot Design Checklist [PDF].

Local. Ric Grefe, AIGA’s executive director, notes that however conscientious, local administrators often lack the expertise to “focus on user experience, clarity and simplicity.” So send your electoral officials the damn checklist. Ask them to change whatever they can within state law. And remind them that AIGA will help them find personalized assistance on ballot design: They need only click here.