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electionlineWeekly — August 16, 2012

Table of Contents

I. In Focus This Week

NOTE: Our friends and colleagues at the Pew Center on the States have launched a new monthly newsletter that summarizes the latest work and research of the Election Initiatives team. You can see the inaugural issue here, which highlights Pew’s work on voter registration and looks back at recent Election Data Dispatches focusing on provisional ballots and the cost of elections. You can subscribe at the bottom of the page to get this information monthly. Check it out! – Doug Chapin, Director


A Conversation with Dana Chisnell
Field Guides To Ensuring Voter Intent

By This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Recently, the MacArthur Foundation announced that it was awarding a grant to the University of Minnesota (which also sponsors electionline.org) to support publication and distribution of a series of Field Guides To Ensuring Voter Intent.

The Field Guides are the brainchild of civic design maven Dana Chisnell, who has carved out an important role in working with election officials to bring good design to election administration. She originally sought crowdfunding for the Field Guides at Kickstarter, exceeding her goal of $15,000 by more than 25 percent. The MacArthur grant extends the project, and Dana is optimistic about expanding it further in 2013 and beyond.

The Guides have gotten rave reviews from election officials, who praise them for their attractiveness and usefulness.

One new fan - Sonoma County, Calif. Clerk Janice Atkinson – called the Guides “clear, concise and easy to follow” and opined that it is “imperative that the principles in these [G]uides be taken into account whenever legislation designating ballot format, instructions or wording is drafted.”

I caught up recently with Dana at her home in North Andover, Mass. as she prepared to bring her Guides – and a passion for election design – to the upcoming National Association of State Election Directors meeting taking place later this week in Boston.

What brought you to election design in the first place?

I was pretty solidly convinced that the election in 2000 was decided because of a ballot design problem, and I was disgusted that the issue was hijacked by technology and security wonks. So, I started looking for something to do locally and ended up doing two things: I joined what is now the Usability In Civic Life Project headed up by fellow design expert Whitney Quesenbery, and I got myself on a citizens advisory committee in my city (then San Francisco) called the Ballot Simplification Committee.

Why the Guides?

While the classic problems of ballot design are very well understood now – thanks to major research projects undertaken by the EAC and NIST, as well as excellent academic research done by people like Kristen Greene and Mike Byrne at Rice University – there are several complex, unstudied and unresolved ballot design problems that remain.

I wonder about the interaction of multi-language ballots with vote-by-mail, along with a voting population that is generally skewing older. Local election officials want desperately to know what to do about issues like these, as well as how to handle alternative counting methods. So there are still many open questions about how to design ballots that include lots of different things for voters to deal with.

We've also learned a lot of lessons over the last ten years about how to help local election officials. Although the EAC's Effective Designs for the Administration of Elections is excellent in its level of detail and its recommendations based on research, those hundreds of pages are not optimally accessible to people in counties who are administering elections and working with voting system vendors to implement in the ballots they generate. So, over time, the few of us who are still working in civic design came to realize that we had to help local election officials see what the priorities were and how it really is quite simple to implement one or two design elements that can make a huge difference in usability for voters.

We wanted to help people see that they could do this within the constraints they have. The Design For Democracy Project of AIGA had already boiled the Effective Designs down to a top 10. When Whitney and I plus our colleague Drew Davies started to look at what else was out there that would be helpful, we saw a bunch of opportunities.

What’s in the Guides, exactly?

The first four Field Guides cover research findings that are already published in much longer formats: designing usable ballots; writing instructions voters understand; testing ballots for usability; and making effective poll worker materials. The next Field Guides will cover findings about designing county election web sites, effective voter education materials, multi-language ballots, and vote-by-mail design and usability. These will come out later in 2012 or the first half of 2013.

We’re not that far from November … What can be accomplished before Election Day?

There are dozens of small things you can do in time for the November general. But I'll pick 5.

  1. Download PDFs of the Field Guides at http://civicdesigning.org/fieldguides. They're short and sweet, and you'll see that toward the back of each one is a checklist you can use to review your ballots and other voter- and poll worker-facing materials against. (You can also request printed copies at the same web site.)

  2. One of the easiest and most effective things you can do is edit instructions and explanations for plain language. In some places, the instructions on the ballots can't be changed because the wording is embedded in election legislation. But you can work on all the supporting materials: voter registration forms, instruction flyers that go in vote-by-mail packets, in-booth instructions and posters, sample ballots, and voter information pamphlets – these are all ripe for clean-up.

  3. Choose one design thing to change in the ballot and just do that. If it were up to me, I would ban all uppercase type. Using sentence case (yes, even for headings and titles) is easier for voters to read.

  4. If you can do two ballot design things, move the instructions to the voter to the beginning of the contests. On a typical paper optical scan ballot, there are 3 vertical columns. The instructions on how to mark the ballot should be at the top of the left column, where voters are most likely to see and read them. (Most opscan voting systems do support this ballot design.

  5. Watch voters use the ballot. Even if you only have time to watch 3 or 4 or 5 people vote in a sort of mock election setup (without training or helping the voter), you can learn amazing things about where voters make mistakes and what to do in the design and instructions to prevent voters from making those mistakes. Each time you watch one person voting just takes about 10 minutes. Like proofreading, this is an effort that can prevent embarrassing an election department, as well as undervotes, recounts, and lawsuits.

What’s the longer-term plan?

Long-term, I see three major areas to work on: election law reform to stop designing ballots in county and state code, voting system standards that are technology independent, and designing voting systems that are universally usable rather than band-aid solutions for accessibility.

In the meantime, I’m hoping to -

  • Get a bunch of volunteers started collecting data for the county election web sites project.
  • Incorporate a couple of small changes to the second printing of the first four Field Guides.
  • Give webinars on usability testing ballots to county election officials (and maybe legislators) across the country.

I’m also hoping to find some time after the election to cycle across Normandy.

Sounds awesome. Where exactly should folks look for you at NASED?

I’ll be everywhere, really, carrying around copies of the Field Guides. I’m not formally on the program, and since I’m not selling the Field Guides I don’t have a vendor booth either. If folks want to meet up they should shoot me an This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or hit me up on Twitter (@danachis).