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The Death of the Hanging Chad: How to Build a Better Ballot

February 24, 2014
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The Death of the Hanging Chad: How to Build a Better Ballot
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Remember the horror show that was the Florida vote in 2000? It may be a thing of the past, thanks to one woman’s design crusade.

There were few hotter spots on the political map in 2012 than the state of Ohio. President Barack Obama and Republican Party nominee Mitt Romney visited the swing state no fewer than 83 times combined over the course of the calendar year. And for good reason: Ohio has picked the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1960.

Heading into Election Day, polls showed the president had a narrow edge. On election night, Fox News, among others, called Ohio for Obama, putting him over the top and effectively ending the evening. The veteran Republican operative Karl Rove flipped out. Angry Republicans demanded a recount, arguing that fraud had influenced the result. It could have been a replay of Florida 2000.

But it wasn’t — thanks, in some small measure, to the efforts of a design consultant named Dana Chisnell. She’s the person election bureaus call to create bulletproof ballots, ones that are clear enough and understandable enough to ensure that every vote counts. For the 2012 election, Chisnell had some specific thoughts for Ohio: Simplify the instructions on the ballot, for starters, and put all the candidates in the race in one column — elements that were missing in Ohio in the 2008 election, when many confused constituents ended up voting twice. “I was confident that the ballots were fine this time,” says Chisnell about the 2012 vote. “When I was talking to the TV on election night, I said, ‘I know it’s not the ballots, you can recount all you want.’”

Fixing how a ballot looks seems like it should be a simple task — choose a design, and stick to it — but in fact each state has its own voting culture, with unique laws and customs that influence its balloting. Oregon and Washington have gone to all vote-by-mail systems, while other states favor electronic touch screens or paper optical scan ballots. New York actually reverted to decades-old lever machines after having multiple problems with newer technology. The result: no one-size-fits-all ballot.

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Into this confusion stepped Chisnell. Fourteen years ago, she was living in San Francisco and running a private consulting business, advising firms on how to improve the language and look of their websites by talking to users and testing the results. The year was 2000, and the country was in the throes of its ballot woes.

The infamous butterfly ballot, a staggered two-page layout with candidate names on alternating sides of a central punch-button column, had caused much confusion among Florida voters. Palm Beach County’s election supervisor had made the fateful mistake of enlarging the type on the ballot to accommodate Sunbelt voters’ aging eyes — unwittingly throwing off the alignment in the process. “It was pretty easy to vote for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore,” says Chisnell, who observed the saga unfolding on TV. “All the crazy recounts were happening not because of a security problem but because of a basic design problem. People had voted for candidates they didn’t intend to because of the design of the ballots.

Chisnell watched, fascinated by on-the-street interviews with grannies complaining that they felt tricked because the ballot was difficult to use. (She has since learned that about 20 percent of Florida voters were exposed to hard-to-read ballots.) This got her thinking: Aren’t there any professional designers involved in creating ballots? She asked around and none of her peers were. She began to search the Internet for ways she could help.

After checking out various government websites, she came across a five-person Ballot Simplification Committee in San Francisco — “It’s like Iron Chef for editors,” says Chisnell — that was responsible for writing the plain-language descriptions of ballot measures. It took a few years, but she wangled her way onto the committee, obtaining an appointment by the mayor. Chisnell, then 43, was the youngest person in the group by far. “There aren’t that many people who can spend 10 weeks a year working for free on this,” says Chisnell, who served from 2005 to 2009 on the pro bono committee. (Luckily, her day-job clients cut her some slack during exhausting election weeks.)

“Dana was really beneficial to the committee,” says Barbara Carr, management assistant at the San Francisco Department of Elections who served as the clerk on the committee. “She was good at making things clearer without losing the meaning.”

Chisnell resigned from the committee when she moved in 2009 to Boston (for love — she’s getting married this spring), but she’s made ballots an ongoing passion project. She went on to work on the Design for Democracy project — a group dedicated to using design tools to make ballots and voting more understandable; it researched and set forth the best practices for creating printed ballots, optical scan ballots, signs and posters at polling places. But Chisnell realized that getting various state election officials to implement the project’s 300 pages of findings would be tough. What’s more, the Election Assistance Commission in Silver Spring, Md., the major government backer of ballot research, was being gutted; research money was drying up. Chisnell and her colleagues feared that their findings would just sit there, gathering dust.

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One day, in the summer of 2011, after Chisnell had given a speech about the issue at a conference in Portland, Ore., a man approached her — “I had hoped he was a wealthy donor!” says Chisnell — and suggested she do a Kickstarter project to make use of her findings. With his help, she did. Working with colleagues Whitney Quesenbery and Drew Davies, Chisnell came up with the idea of raising money to create tiny field-guide booklets with easy-to-implement, actionable tips — the boiled-down essence of their research. “It was a stroke of genius on Dana’s part to take the big pile of paper and get it down to something cute,” says Quesenbery. “If it’s cute, it can’t be that hard to implement.”

Among her colleagues’ suggestions: Don’t use all upper-case letters, because they’re harder to read. Avoid centered type. Pick one sans serif font instead of many. And use shading and contrast to help voters navigate the different races featured on the ballot. “Simple things have had the most impact,” says Chisnell.

Chisnell launched a successful Kickstarter campaign in April 2012 to fund the creation of the Field Guides to Ensuring Voter Intent series. Her slogan: Democracy is a design problem. She emailed her entire address book, begging family and friends for money and asking them to do the same. With the support of 320 backers, Chisnell raised $20,761, exceeding her goal of $15,000. “The payoff wasn’t really the funding, but meeting a community of people who are really interested in this topic,” says Chisnell.

The Kickstarter campaign also caught the attention of the people at the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded Chisnell and her team of 30 volunteers a $75,000 grant. The money went to the creation, promotion and distribution of eight booklets on topics such as designing usable ballots, writing instructions that voters can easily understand and sprucing up election department websites. The money also financed two more studies on creating more effective county election websites and printed voter education material.

The guides are now in their third printing, with 1,500 sets being used in 43 states and in four Canadian and European provinces. Demand has exceeded supply. Georgia requested one set for every county. So did Ohio. “The measure of success is whether we have fewer spoiled ballots, fewer calls to the call center and fewer recounts,” says Chisnell, who notes that outcomes have been anecdotal. “We do [have all that], although it’s hard to say this is all because of the field guides, but we are pretty confident they’re making a difference.”

Election officials certainly agree. In the fateful 2012 elections in Ohio, Chisnell’s counsel was a godsend. “We took as many of the suggestions as we could from her,” says Matt Masterson, deputy chief of staff for the Ohio secretary of state, who noted that almost all of Chisnell’s ideas involved no additional costs. “She really made the ballot easier to use.” And her ideas worked. “Based on what we saw with the 2012 election undervotes and overvotes, time in the ballot box and general feedback from the boards,” says Masterson, “we have no doubt that the suggestions Dana provided had a positive impact.”

These days, Chisnell is still working to make every vote count. She testified before the Presidential Commission on Election Administration in Pennsylvania and Ohio about using ballot design to improve the election experience, especially in response to the long lines at the polls in 2012. She and Quesenbery have started the Center for Civic Design, which they hope to make into a funded research center. She’s also looking for ways to make multilingual ballots easier to use.

“Dana is one of the entrepreneurs in this field,” says Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, who has worked closely with her. “There is a huge need for the work she is doing and not a lot of support for it. She is making change happen through her own will.”

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