Design for Democracy Solves Election Problems

A book of guidelines on how graphics can clarify ballots and the voting process generally has won an IDEA awardand endorsement by the Election Assistance Commission

Democracy is a complex, imperfect, and sometimes messy form of government. This became abundantly clear after the 2000 U.S Presidential election, when a poorly designed butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County, Fla., effectively disenfranchised thousands of voters.

In the following days, Marcia Lausen, a graphic designer in Chicago, volunteered on behalf of the local chapter of the AIGA, a design industry association, to help redesign her city's own butterfly ballot. Lausen led a group of volunteer designers and design students, who worked with election officials in Cook County. But ballot design, as she writes in Design for Democracy, a book about election design based on their work that won a gold IDEA this year, "turned out to be merely the tip of the iceberg."

Ultimately, the team undertook a redesign of the complete voting experience, from the election forms and brochures mailed to voters to polling place signage and poll worker instruction manuals to, yes, ballots. The breadth of the project impressed Frank von Holzhausen, president of the design firm Group Four and a member of this year's jury. "It could have been a simple ballot design project, but they went deeper," he says. "They had a solution for every election-related problem a state might have."

The problems are myriad. Take ballot design, the issue that the 2000 election brought into sharp focus. Some officials jumped to the wrong conclusions—butterfly ballots are bad and manual recounts are a nightmare—and rushed to implement new, high-tech systems. A better lesson is that poorly designed ballots do a disservice to democracy, and Lausen offers five principles to improve the clarity and legibility of any type of ballot. These include a limit to the number of variations in the type font and the use of easier-to-read lowercase letters. The latter led Cook County to rewrite a November 2000 law that required candidate names be printed in capital letters.

The Design for Democracy guidelines and prototypes show simple ways to implement improvements throughout the election system. Banners make polling locations more visible. Layout templates help poll workers set up equipment and stations in an optimal configuration for traffic flow. For election administrators, a streamlined system of administrative forms and envelopes in which envelope sizes correspond to their contents and are color-coded to indicate the final destination—simple design improvements—reduce confusion on election day.

Design for Democracy is a tool for designers, elections officials, printers, or equipment manufacturers involved in the elections industry. Anyone can borrow or build on its visual system of type, color, and image guidelines to make the election process more accessible, more accurate, and more efficient. This in turn, writes Lausen, "will increase voter confidence, promote government transparency, and…create an informed electorate."

In July 2007, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission accepted the Design for Democracy's recommendations, and subsequently distributed the guidelines to 6,000 election officials across the country. The states aren't legally required to adopt the guidelines, but several have, including Oregon and Florida.

"Anyone using this guide will find that design can bring order and clarity to a very confusing process,"says von Holzhausen. "We will all benefit if this guide is used in future elections."

Hear Marcia Lausen discussing how design can reshape and strengthen the democratic process in this Innovation Podcast.

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