According to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice, tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of votes are rejected or miscast because of known bad ballot designs. Intuitive design is especially important because approximately 50 million people each year encounter a ballot design for the first time, either because they’ve moved, are new to voting, or because the ballot has been revised. People who are most vulnerable to ballot design disenfranchisement are people living in poverty, older voters, and new voters.

Some problems with ballot designs:

  • Including all instructions at the beginning of the ballot instead of alongside each task.
  • Passive voice; negatives.
  • Small or unreadable fonts, like this:

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  • Unnecessarily complex language.
  • Listing candidates for a single office on multiple pages.
  • Including more than one contest per page.
  • Centered, all-caps, and dense text, like this:

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  • Inconsistent use of font or failure to differentiate different kinds of information with shading or font.
  • Confusing indications as to how to indicate the voter’s choice.
  • Publicizing sample ballots that don’t match actual ballots.

There are many examples of good and bad ballots at the Brennan Center’s report, Better Ballots.

The Brennan Center asserts that these problems are easily identified. Unfortunately, many jurisdictions aren’t paying attention: very few pre-test their ballot designs to discover problems and few examine results of election to discover which counties’ elections are most undermined by lost and miscast votes. Some jurisdictions, moreover, are operating under laws that require the use of ballot designs that we know are bad and many are using voting machines that are not flexible enough to accommodate good design.

Good ballot design, the report emphasizes, is non-partisan, well understood, inexpensive, and simple to implement. It may not be the most scandalous way to lose hundreds of thousands of votes, but it’s a real and substantial problem, and one that can be easily fixed.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.