How to design your way to a better election

Screen grab from NYT video on dysfunctional ballot design

Electoral Dysfunction

As Gerald Ford might have said, “Our long national nightmare is (almost) over.” Eighteen months of increasingly rancid and, in some cases, mendacious campaign advertising are now coming to a merciful end, sparing us more of the same until the Congressional races two years from now. Still, citizens face one more test of their civic devotion: casting their vote.

The election of 2012 presents many challenges from Hurricane Sandy to outright voter suppression. But just decoding the ballot is barrier. In today’s NYT, Mo Rocca interviews designer Todd Oldham and together they take a tour of recent ballots, starting with the infamous butterfly ballot that ushered in George W. in 2000. Their video, appropriately titled “Electoral Dysfunction,” describes how poor ballot design (type, color, layout), inconsistent standards (every electoral district is different) and deliberately misleading language  (all the better to confuse lo-info voters) compromise democracy and inhibit the act of voting itself.

The Brennan Center has conducted its own study and concludes that ” poor design increases the risk of lost or misrecorded votes…” affecting the outcome of “critical contests.” Of which, arguably, this presidential election is a sterling example.

The right to vote shouldn’t hinge on a hanging chad. National standards and clear intuitive design would make our ballots more actionable and easier to cast. As for the politicians, they’re on their own.


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