Creating An Accessible Voter Experience
As midterm elections near, tens of millions of eligible voters are gearing up to cast their ballots. While voter engagement advocates and volunteers place a large emphasis on making processes like voter registration and mail-in ballot requests easier to navigate, the actual task of filling out a ballot receives much less stakeholder guidance.
Whether on paper or digital, the typical ballot often contains small, packed text, with little distinction between headings, paragraphs and separate sections. This can be a nuisance for some voters, but it can have detrimental effects for millions of voters who require accessible ballot structure.
Ballot accessibility is both a design and policy issue. To understand the dynamics of both, we sat down with Whitney Quesenbery, Executive Director of the Center For Civic Design (CCD), a nonprofit organization that works to reimagine what civic participation can look like through design.
Creating the Anywhere Ballot
Without accessible design, reading through and properly filling out ballots poses significant challenges for millions of voters. A large portion of eligible voters includes people for whom English is a second language, people with visual or auditory disabilities, dyslexia, lower literacy capability and attention deficit disorder. Reading through long sets of information, often with cramped text, poor contrast levels and too-small fonts causes a serious fissure in the user experience.
Quesenbery explained that states and counties create their own ballot design guidelines. Within those, counties and local municipalities have their own sets of contests and ballot initiatives. Thus, ballots have hundreds to thousands of variations within the state or county umbrella. For example, she noted that Los Angeles County has over 1,500 unique ballot designs.
However, the actual design standards for a ballot often fail to accommodate the unique sets of information that could be included. Quesenbery noted that specific standards for accessibility are not typically required. Poor ballot usability can discourage voters from filling out certain sections, makes errors more likely, increases the likelihood of a voter failing to complete the process and lessens overall turnout.
“By the time someone goes through the bureaucratic hoops to get registered to vote, and decides to show up either by mail or at their polling place, we should be doing our best to make sure they can actually physically read the ballot and mark it in a way that makes sure that their ballot will be counted accurately,” said Quesenbery.
In order to solve this issue, the Center for Civic Design researched and published the Anywhere Ballot. Through several years of research and testing, the Anywhere Ballot is a ballot design template that accommodates voters of any ability, works on paper or a digital format, and can be customized to the localized needs of states, counties and towns to include relevant ballot contests.“We wanted to take what we already know about best practices and research [for design] and apply it to every ballot, every form, every piece of information, every instruction. That knowledge is out there, but it's hard to move it into a field like elections.”
When Yes Means No: Ballot Measures
Beyond ballot design, the written style of ballot measures in particular is infamous for causing confusion and frustration for voters. Quesenbery noted that the difficulty of reading and understanding ballot measure language is the largest complaint they receive from voters.
Ballot measures exist in 26 states, as well as counties and cities nationwide. Their purpose is to give voters a pipeline to have a voice in critical policy issues. However, the confusing nature of ballot measure language often has a discouraging effect on voter participation. Voters who struggle to understand the meaning of a proposed initiative may choose to leave the question blank.
Quesenbery noted the usefulness of third party groups who often publish resources to break down the meaning of ballot initiatives and their implications. However, the effort involved from groups and voters alike takes up unnecessary time and energy “The problem isn't that we can't figure out ways to help voters make a decision. The problem is that we shouldn't have to. The easier we can make [it to understand] that ballot question, the easier we can make the official text, the more everybody else in the election ecosystem can spend their energy engaging people rather than remediating.”
CCD has researched and published recommendations for incorporating plain language into every aspect of a ballot. At the moment, codifying plain language into ballot standards has yet to gain major traction. CCD is in the middle of a large research project surrounding ballot measure language. According to Quesenbery, it aims to understand exactly what makes them hard to understand and propose actionable solutions.
Collaborating for Policy Reform
When considering ballot design and language standards reform, each state has different laws and regulations regarding who can set rules on election administration.
This influences who organizations like CCD collaborate with on reform. Quesenbery emphasized the central role of collaboration between government officials, advocacy groups and subject matter experts in shaping accessible election infrastructure. CCD works with a multitude of stakeholders on every ballot design and accessibility project they take on.
Quesenbery noted CCD’s work with the New York City Board of Elections and Campaign Finance Board to design new ballots to match the city’s transition to ranked choice voting in 2021. Ranked choice voting is a method that most voters are typically unfamiliar with, requiring the city to create an education campaign with explanations and instructions written in clear, simple terms.
“The biggest, most diverse city in the United States that has ever adopted ranked choice voting, got through that first election, with 80% of voters saying yes, they felt confident as they were marking their ballot. Whether you love the policy or don't like the policy, it's important for the voters to be able to understand the policy and work within it,” explained Quesenbery.
She also highlighted CCD’s work in Texas to create voter education resources for the state’s new vote by mail standards, led by Asher Kolieboi, one of CCD’s civic design researchers. In collaboration with the League of Women Voters and several local election groups, Kolieboi ran usability testing for materials with a diverse swath of voters throughout the state.
Through thoughtful stakeholder engagement, Quesenbery and CCD continue to see success in their work to make voter education resources, election administration handbooks and ballot design accessible to facilitate an encouraging experience. “In the end, we want our energy to go into democracy and making decisions about what kind of country we want to live in, what we want our rules and laws to be and who we want to represent us. Having to make strategic decisions about whether you're going to vote by mail or vote in person–those shouldn't be the decisions that occupy our minds around elections.”
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Editor's Note: Electo Analytics values academic discourse, and as such, does not explicitly endorse any of the policy recommendations made by experts whom we interview.