Bal­lot de­sign’s role in pro­mot­ing democ­racy

Fixes cru­cial prob­lems that can hurt races

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY VA­LERIE RICHARD­SON

OMAHA, NEB. am­paigns rou­tinely spend mil­lions of dol­lars on get-out-thevote drives, but it’s money down the drain if vot­ers can’t fig­ure out the bal­lot. That’s where Drew Davies comes in. The col­lege art ma­jor has par­layed his knack for graphic de­sign into a ca­reer as one of the na­tion’s premier bal­lot fix-it guys. His job de­scrip­tion may come as a sur­prise to those who as­sume that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has ironed out the kinks since the 2000 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion up­roar in Florida.

As Mr. Davies can at­test, there are still causes for con­cern. He sees bal­lots jammed with races, im­pos­si­bly tiny print and fill-in bub­bles that don’t quite align with can­di­dates’ names.

“It’s not just about pret­ty­ing things up,” said Mr. Davies, who founded Ox­ide De­sign in 2001 af­ter earn­ing a fine arts de­gree from Coe Col­lege in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “De­sign is af­fect­ing our democ­racy. It’s af­fect­ing your lives. Look at the elec­tion in 2000: Bad de­sign af­fected your life.”

His work with the non­profit Cen­ter for Civic De­sign to cre­ate 10 pocket-sized field guides for state and lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cials has been hon­ored by the Cooper He­witt, Smith­so­nian De­sign Mu­seum in New York City, which will show­case the pam­phlets as part of an ex­hibit start­ing Sept. 30.

The pro­ject grew out of a com­pre­hen­sive best-prac­tices doc­u­ment on bal­lot de­sign adopted in 2007 by the U.S. Elec­tion As­sis­tance Commission. It is a nearly 400-page tome that hardly any­body reads.

“They de­liv­ered a copy to ev­ery elec­tion com­mis­sioner across the na­tion, but we joke that it got filed next to the Ark of the Covenant,” said Mr. Davies. “I’m not sure how many peo­ple even cracked the spine. In ret­ro­spect, it’s just way too daunt­ing.”

He and Dana Chis­nell, co-direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Civic De­sign, re­sponded by tak­ing the doc­u­ment’s most crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion and boiling it down to stream­lined pre­sen­ta­tions for elec­tions of­fi­cials na­tion­wide.

“Af­ter about a year of she and I be­ing out on the cir­cuit, she was like, ‘What if we took those top 10 tips you’re do­ing and my top 10 tips for how to con­duct your own mini-us­abil­ity tests? And we started this set of dead-sim­ple, su­per-easy-to-use pocket guides so that we could give those to elec­tion of­fi­cials,” Mr. Davies said. “And they could think, ‘Oh, I can do this.’”

At first, Ms. Chis­nell fi­nanced the pro­ject through a Kick­starter crowd­fund­ing cam­paign. Later, the MacArthur Foun­da­tion chipped in with a grant.

The pam­phlets of­fer prac­ti­cal, un­der­stand­able ad­vice on prac­tices such as mak­ing bal­lots easy to un­der­stand and

Cde­sign­ing elec­tion web­sites. Among the tips: Write in the ac­tive voice. Use short, sim­ple, ev­ery­day words. Sep­a­rate para­graphs by a space. Avoid cen­tered type. Use low­er­case let­ters.

‘De­sign nerds’ tackle bal­lots

Ox­ide De­sign, with an elab­o­rate Lego city in its store­front win­dow, has the look of a mil­len­nial op­er­a­tion. The tech com­pany rubs shoul­ders with the hip­ster-friendly night­clubs, tat­too par­lors and cloth­ing shops that in­habit the re­vi­tal­ized brick buildings just west of down­town in Omaha’s his­toric Black­stone District.

Ox­ide’s fo­cus on elec­tion-re­lated de­sign grew out of Mr. Davies’ fas­ci­na­tion with cre­at­ing bet­ter doc­u­ments, such as voter in­for­ma­tion guides and reg­is­tra­tion forms. The firm de­scribes its em­ploy­ees as “de­sign nerds with OCD ten­den­cies.”

“We had been more skew­ing into in­for­ma­tion de­sign or forms de­sign than most firms would have,” Mr. Davies said. “A lot of de­sign firms think that is sort of be­neath them. And I had al­ways thought there was some­thing re­ally fas­ci­nat­ing about mak­ing a driver’s li­cense ap­pli­ca­tion way more us­able and in­tu­itive. Like, here’s a prob­lem I can solve by just mak­ing this form bet­ter.”

He joined the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute for Graphic Arts’ “De­sign for Democ­racy” pro­ject while serv­ing as pres­i­dent of the lo­cal chap­ter. He be­gan work­ing with the state of Ne­braska on pi­lot test­ing for bal­lots.

“I just loved the work, and we were hav­ing a great time at Ox­ide do­ing it, so we con­tin­ued to say yes,” he said. “The long and the short is that more and more peo­ple kept drop­ping out of this pro­ject. It’s muddy sort of work. So by the time the pro­ject ended and this doc­u­ment ex­isted, we were some of the last men stand­ing.”

Mr. Davies de­vel­oped an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for predica­ments that elec­tion of­fi­cials face. Hun­dreds of tasks come with run­ning elec­tions, and it’s rare to find some­one with de­sign ex­pe­ri­ence.

“When I started do­ing this work, I thought, ‘All of these elec­tion of­fi­cials are mess­ing this up. Why aren’t they do­ing their jobs?’ Easy for me to say,” he said. “We ask, it turns out, a lot of our elec­tion of­fi­cials in this coun­try. They just have a lot of things to man­age — cer­ti­fy­ing can­di­dates, cer­ti­fy­ing elec­tions — and it turns out that by ac­ci­dent one of those things for them to man­age is de­sign of bal­lots and try­ing to make sure the bal­lots are set up in a way that they’re not go­ing to cause an­other Florida 2000 de­ba­cle,” Mr. Davies said. As a re­sult of the 2002 Help Amer­ica Vote Act, some of the most egre­gious bloop­ers seen in Florida have been ad­dressed. No longer in use is the in­fa­mous “hang­ing chads” punch­card sys­tem that made the pres­i­den­tial re­count so dif­fi­cult, nor the “but­ter­fly bal­lot,” which is be­lieved to have re­sulted in thou­sands of Palm Beach County votes in­tended for Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Al Gore ac­ci­den­tally go­ing in­stead to Re­form Party can­di­date Pat Buchanan. In his work with coun­ties and states, Mr. Davies con­tin­ues to spot red flags. One com­mon blun­der: bal­lots with three or more col­umns. Coun­ties try to save money by fit­ting all of their races on a sin­gle page. “When they start stack­ing these in three col­umns, all of a sud­den the lit­tle oval you’re sup­posed to fill in is a lot closer to the left-of-line names in the next col­umn over,” said Mr. Davies. “The peo­ple who need to get these bal­lots laid out re­ally quickly are think­ing, ‘Ob­vi­ously it’s an oval, ob­vi­ously it’s three col­umns,’ but a lot of peo­ple vote only ev­ery four years and it’s a long time since they saw a bal­lot of any sort. “And all of a sud­den, they’re mak­ing a col­lec­tion of er­rors where, ‘I be­lieve my­self to have voted for these four can­di­dates and I’m turn­ing in my bal­lot,’ when in fact they have not,” Mr. Davies said. “They have voted in er­ror on all of those be­cause they shifted off a col­umn. Those are the kinds of key, crit­i­cal things on bal­lots we’re look­ing to fix.”

The ‘any­where bal­lot’

One of his big­gest projects this year was for the Cal­i­for­nia Se­nate pri­mary this month, when 34 can­di­dates were run­ning for nom­i­na­tions un­der the state’s re­cently im­ple­mented top-two sys­tem. The chal­lenge: squeez­ing all 34 can­di­dates onto one page with­out con­fus­ing vot­ers.

“The coun­ties we’re work­ing with all reached out and said, ‘You guys are the elec­tion de­sign peo­ple. What are we go­ing to do?’ They know enough now from work­ing with us that span­ning two col­umns equals bad,” Mr. Davies said. “So we ended up with, ‘OK, it’s go­ing to have to be two col­umns. Let’s try a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent ways of mark­ing these things. Can we put dif­fer­ent dis­claimers in dif­fer­ent places?’”

For­tu­nately, he said, some coun­ties had enough re­sources to run quick us­abil­ity tests. Lo­cal gov­ern­ments gen­er­ally don’t have the time or money for fo­cus groups, but the pam­phlets rec­om­mend a cost-ef­fec­tive al­ter­na­tive: Round up a half­dozen vol­un­teers and ask them to vote a pro­to­type bal­lot.

“We had them run down to the li­brary and say, ‘OK, try vot­ing this form for me.’ The fact is, if you can get a test bal­lot in front of five ran­dom peo­ple — the less-avid vot­ers, the bet­ter — you can pretty eas­ily fer­ret out some of the worst prob­lems,” Mr. Davies said.

Af­ter run­ning a few such ex­per­i­ments, he said, “we were able to take that so­lu­tion and send it as a mini-best-prac­tices to all the coun­ties in the state and say, ‘We did a lit­tle test­ing on this. Here’s how we rec­om­mend you treat these 34 can­di­dates for the Se­nate.’”

Wher­ever there is a ma­jor bal­lot de­sign pro­ject, chances are Mr. Davies is in­volved. He is work­ing on the Fu­ture of Cal­i­for­nia Elec­tions initiative, funded by the Irvine Foun­da­tion. He also is help­ing de­velop the “any­where bal­lot,” which would al­low vot­ers to mark bal­lots from their smart­phones, lap­tops and tablets.

That is not the same as In­ter­net vot­ing, which Mr. Davies doesn’t fore­see any­time soon be­cause of se­cu­rity is­sues.

What wor­ries him about this year’s elec­tions? Mainly the out-of-date soft­ware and hard­ware used by lo­cal and state elec­tions de­part­ments, much of it pur­chased with an in­fu­sion of fed­eral dol­lars from the Help Amer­ica Vote Act 14 years ago.

“We’re at a point now where there are go­ing to be a lot of states and ju­ris­dic­tions run­ning ma­chines well past their in­tended life,” Mr. Davies said.

He said it will prob­a­bly fall to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to fund up­dates to the sys­tem in the near fu­ture or risk an ill-timed com­puter fail­ure in a key swing state dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

As he points out, that is out of his con­trol. What he can con­trol is the de­sign.

“If we take it on faith that they’ll up­date these ma­chines and they’ll keep get­ting these sys­tems in place, we want to make sure that the de­sign, the in­ter­faces that vot­ers have to in­ter­act with on those ma­chines, pa­per bal­lots and voter in­for­ma­tion guides end up be­ing as us­able as pos­si­ble,” Mr. Davies said.

“And in that way, we’re mak­ing peo­ple’s lives bet­ter,” he said. “We’re ac­tu­ally help­ing the democ­racy we live in func­tion bet­ter.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.