Top 10 ballot design tips (for designers)

Not to be confused with our top 10 election design guidelines, which are largely geared toward election officials (though we hear designers find those helpful too), the intention of this list is to help new ballot designers become more familiar with the domain of U.S. elections and to set expectations about what the ballot design process might entail. “Might” is the key word: though this list originates from a diversity of projects, experiences will be different everywhere. Contact Design for Democracy to share your experience and to be connected with other ballot designers. See also: election design tools and resources for links that offer more information on many of the following topics.

1. U.S. elections are local business

Ballot production is managed by election officials at state, county and local levels. Some states exert a lot of control over election administration; some don't. Some elections include voting questions ranging from the federal level (e.g., “Who should be President of the United States?”) to the township level (“Should Main Street be repaved?”).

2. U.S. elections come in many shapes and sizes

Election types vary—Primary, General, Special, Runoff—and occur throughout most years. Question types may include Vote for One, Vote for Many, Vote Yes or No, Vote to Retain (keep in office) and Vote via Ranked Choice. It will help if you can develop an understanding of your local electoral process.

3. Ballots come in many shapes and sizes

Ballot types include lever machine, paper for hand counting, punch-card paper for machine counting (as used in Palm Beach in 2000), optical-scan paper for machine counting (as used for lottery tickets and standardized tests), and direct recording electronic (DRE), such as a touchscreen (similar to banking ATMs). Most jurisdictions are now using optical-scan and/or DRE ballots. Optical-scan ballots may feature ovals, boxes or arrows for selection.

4. Voters are diverse, too

Elections must accommodate voting at polling places, by mail, using nontraditional input methods and in languages other than English. Voters also vary in levels of literacy, quality of vision and learning style. As with other design challenges, designing with all voters in mind often yields more usable ballots for mainstream voters.

5. Voting systems provide key design constraints

Voting systems—governing tabulation (vote counting), ballot generation or ballot user interfaces—exert a lot of control over what is possible (or easy) to do on a ballot. For instance, voting systems may govern ballot dimensions, columns and spacing. Voting systems often represent a major investment by states and counties, and therefore do not change frequently. The level of cooperation you have with voting system vendors and ballot printers will be a major factor in the outcome of your design project.

6. Election laws provide key design constraints

Elections are governed nationally by the Help Americans Vote Act (HAVA) 2002, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other civil rights laws enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice. State laws provide further governance—some dictate language that must be included on ballots; some will go so far as to require the use of all capital letters for referenda or candidate names (in direct contradiction with best practice guidelines). Voter intent laws, which govern how a voter's marks on a ballot will be interpreted, are also critical to understand. Local legislatures do revisit election laws, but the cycle for change can be slow.

7. Established election administration practices provide key design constraints

From printing budgets to required approvals to storage space, laws and equipment are not the only sources of restriction on ballot designs. Again, it will be helpful to understand current local processes—for elections overall as well in preparing for a particular election. (This understanding will also help you to identify election media, other than ballots, that could benefit from voter-centered design or that must change to support proposed changes to ballots. Ideally, election design should be approached holistically.)

8. Follow the spirit of the specifications

In light of the unique set of constraints governing each local ballot, you will rarely be able to apply all best-practice specifications (e.g., type size for ballot title and other specifications detailed in Design for Democracy's ballot and polling place design guidelines for the EAC) to the letter. Keep in mind the underlying usability goals and the intentions behind each specification as you make requisite design trade-offs.

9. Start with design backed by research, adapt and test

The aforementioned Design for Democracy/EAC guidelines are the result of extensive research with voters, election officials and experts, and are compliant with national election laws. Therefore, they provide a good starting point for solving any number of ballot design challenges. However, once design and instructional language samples are adapted to meet local ballot needs, further usability testing with voters is recommended.

10. Ballot design is change management

As veteran ballot designer Drew Davies says, “Good design is the easy part,” and may account for about 20 percent of your project time. For skilled information and interaction designers, the challenges may lie in discovering key constraints up front, developing relationships with key stakeholders, determining which constraints are flexible on what time frames, and getting buy-in on proposed changes. Do not be discouraged if changes must be made incrementally—in fact, approaching ballot design with the explicit expectation that change will come in phases may be most effective, in both the short and long terms.