Election Design History and Resources
Stacy Abrams writes on Fair Fight that, “Democracy works best when we put in place the guardrails that ensure every American has an equal opportunity to make their voice heard...” Usable electronic or printed ballots, legible voter registration forms, and understandable voting processes are a critical part of that infrastructure.
The stakes are particularly high for ballots—the ultimate proxy for each American’s voice—because voting is anonymous and once a ballot is submitted mistakes are difficult to correct. On the other hand, positive experiences of voting culminating in trust that the “will of the people” is rendered, reward our participation and deepen our democratic engagement.
Through its Design for Democracy program and the work of individual members, AIGA has increased the efficacy of ballots and election materials, serving U.S. election officials, election designers and citizens nationwide. Descriptions of this work and related resources are listed here in historical context.
Design for Democracy’s “top 10” recommendations for designing usable ballots are illustrated in the Field Guides to Ensuring Voter Intent from the Center for Civic Design. This series of booklets, created in 2012, is in the pockets of election officials across the country as they create voter-facing materials for states and counties today.
AIGA member Alicia Chang illuminates the United States’ visual history of the printed ballot in her book, This Is What Democracy Looked Like.
In addition to printing technology, voting equipment significantly influences the visual design of ballots. To understand more about why ballots look the way they do now, visit MIT Election Data and Science Lab’s survey of Voting Technology.
Beyond national requirements from the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Department of Justice, ballots are governed by state and county laws, some of which also dictate ballot appearance. In 2011, AIGA’s Drew Davies collaborated with the Brennan Center for Justice on New York’s Voter Friendly Ballot Act, now state law.
AIGA member Benjamin Shaykin leads RISD students to redesign local ballots and election materials, inspired by Marcia Lausen’s work a decade earlier. Two of these students are enlisted as interns for Rhode Island, and a permanent in-house designer, AIGA member Sue Bohorquez, is subsequently hired.
Drew Davies collaborates with the Center for Civic Design’s Dana Chisnell on the Anywhere Ballot, an exploration of online voting from personal devices, funded by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and the Information Technology and Information Foundation.
Drew rises to the challenge of telling the story of Design for Democracy in 5-ish minutes, caught on video during AIGA’s GAIN conference.
In the first election “off season” since the 2007 publication of AIGA and the EAC’s best practices for ballot and election design, Design for Democracy connects designers with local demand for better voting materials. AIGA members Ann Willoughby and Zach Shubkagel modify national guidelines for the State of Kansas, while Drew Davies redesigns New York City’s voter registration form and helps popular voting equipment maker ES&S to offer ballot templates consistent with the 2007 guidelines. Election officials in Texas report using Design for Democracy’s guidance to improve citizen-facing materials in the domain of elections and beyond.
Washington State takes note of Oregon’s success in improving ballot and election materials, and Design for Democracy expands its Election Design Fellowship program. AIGA members Amy Vainieri and Jenny Greeve serve as new Fellows in Oregon and Washington respectively. To help orient Fellows and other designers to the complex landscape of U.S. election design, Design for Democracy generates the Top 10 Ballot Design Tips (for designers).
Design for Democracy shares the process of developing the EAC best practices and common obstacles to improving election materials in Interactions magazine’s, Citizen-Centered Design (Slowly) Revolutionizes the Media and Experience of U.S. Elections.
Design for Democracy distils the 2007 EAC report into the Top 10 Election Design Guidelines (for election officials) and sends a hard copy of this list along with Marcia Lausen’s book to all members of Congress.
To further support the EAC’s dissemination of the report in preparation for this year’s Presidential Election, Design for Democracy attends national meetings of local election officials (Election Center, IGO), presenting findings and offering live feedback on ballots-in-progress.
To update the general public about the post-butterfly ballot milestone of putting actionable election design support in the hands of local officials nationwide, Design for Democracy creates an interactive demonstration and discusses the new best practice guidelines for The New York Times.
Collaborating with Larry Norden and the Center for Civic Design’s Whitney Quesenbery, AIGA assists with the Brennan Center for Justice report: Better Ballots which advocates for fixes to common ballot mistakes that produce measurable voter errors.
The EAC publishes Design for Democracy’s report on Best Practices for the Design of Ballots and Polling Place Materials and provides editable, digital samples of paper ballots and polling place signs to the thousands of election officials nationwide.
AIGA and the University of Chicago Press publish Marcia Lausen’s Design For Democracy: Ballot and Election Design. This book reflects her seminal work in Illinois and Oregon, and the first iteration of what will become national guidance for election officials.
The relationship between Design for Democracy and the State of Oregon results in the launch of AIGA’s Election Design Fellowship program. AIGA member Mathew Goodrich serves as Oregon’s first Fellow, improving the election officials’ handbook to discerning voter intent after ballots are cast, as well voter-facing materials.
Design for Democracy develops its first nationwide ballot design guidelines for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). While all federal guidelines for voting systems are voluntary because states retain authority over election administration, manufacturers of election equipment look to NIST when gathering requirements for their voting machines’ capabilities. AIGA member Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall leads this project.
Dori goes on to help to establish Design for Democracy’s largest federal election design project, which involves two years of investigating, prototyping, testing and generating guidelines for the design of election administration processes, polling place signs, and paper and electronic ballots. Commissioned by the EAC and funded by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), this project engages AIGA members Elizabeth Hare, Mary Quandt, Michael Konetska and Drew Davies, in partnership with usability, literacy, policy and election technology experts. The broad team ensures the resulting guidelines are widely applicable despite constraints of local laws, equipment and practices.
Marcia Lausen’s success in improving Chicago’s voter experience caught the attention of Oregon’s Elections Director, John Lindback. Oregon citizens vote by mail, a process that requires especially clear ballots and instructions. Marcia provides a team of design students to assist in Oregon and national opportunities follow.
Had a designer reviewed the layout of the infamously confusing Palm Beach County “Butterfly Ballot”, the result of this year’s national Presidential Election may have been different. AIGA member Marcia Lausen partners with her local Cook County Clerk to be that designer for the City of Chicago, and Design for Democracy’s focus on election design is established.
AIGA Executive Director, Richard Grefé forms Design for Democracy, a nonpartisan national initiative committed to advocating for the value of design with legislators, demonstrating that value through visible civic design projects, and improving citizen-government interactions.
AIGA member Burkey Belser designs the original Food and Drug Administration Nutrition Facts label, demonstrating that collaboration between designers and government can lead to clear presentation of complex information—and better informed citizens.
The U.S. Department of Transportation collaborates with a team of AIGA members to establish standard Symbol Signs for passengers and pedestrians. The proliferation of this visual language portends Design for Democracy’s influence on polling place materials.
Confusing ballots are as old as AIGA, according to this The New York Times’ report on the argument to shorten ballots. President Taft endorses the shorter ballot as, “Certain to facilitate the expression of the popular will.”
An update to Design for Democracy’s 2009 collection of election design resources, this timeline was created in 2021 by former AIGA staff member and Design for Democracy managing director Jessica Hewitt. Any omissions are accidental. AIGA members with events and resources to add to this collection should please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.