Top 10 Election Design Guidelines

These guidelines are derived from AIGA Design for Democracy’s best practices report on behalf of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), “Effective Designs for the Administration of Federal Elections.” Tips may be helpful individually or all at once toward improving Optical scan (paper) and DRE (touchscreen) ballots, as well as voter information materials and polling place signs.

Despite the research and expertise underpinning these guidelines and the EAC report, Design for Democracy recommends that all ballot design changes go through usability testing with real voters to avoid unintended consequences (such as the increase in the size of candidate names in Palm Beach 2000 leading to a butterfly layout). In cases where the guidelines contradict outdated local laws governing ballot appearance, it may be worth seeking legislative change in order to improve the voter experience.

  1. Use lowercase letters
    Lowercase letters are more legible than ALL CAPITAL LETTERS because they are easier to recognize.
  2. Avoid centered type
    Left-aligned type is more legible than centered type, which forces the eye to stop reading in order to find the start of the next line.
  3. Use big enough type
    “Fine print” is hard to read and may intimidate or alienate voters. Use minimum type sizes: 12-point for optical scan; 25-point for touchscreens. (Following this principle for optical scan ballots may impact printing costs but will be a worthwhile investment in election accuracy.)
  4. Pick one sans-serif font
    Avoid introducing new fonts, which require the eye to stop reading and adjust. Sans-serif fonts with clean strokes (Arial, Helvetica, Univers, Verdana) are recommended for screen and for the quantity and variation of text found on paper ballots. For dual-language materials, use bold text for the primary language, regular text for the secondary language.
  5. Support process and navigation
    For optical-scan ballots, offer comprehensive instructions and page numbering. For touchscreen ballots, offer language and mode options, continuous access to instructions, consistent and flexible navigation and clear feedback about selections. Post notable wayfinding and instructional materials in and around the polling place.
  6. Use clear, simple language
    State instructions and options as simply as possible. Summarize referenda in simple language alongside required formats. Do not include more than two languages on any one material.
  7. Use accurate instructional illustrations
    Visual instructions help low-literacy and general-population voters. Photo images, which are difficult to shoot and reproduce well, are not recommended. Illustrations must be accurate in their details to avoid misleading voters.
  8. Use informational icons (only)
    Avoid political party icons. Icons that call attention to key information and support navigation are recommended in limited use.
  9. Use contrast and color functionally
    Use color and shading consistently: on optical scan ballots, to differentiate instructions from contents and contests from each other; and on touchscreen ballots, to support navigation, call special attention and provide user feedback. Color cannot be relied on as the only way to communicate important information.
  10. Decide what's most important
    Page and screen layout and text sizes should support information hierarchy. For instance, the ballot title should be more prominent than any one contest, a contest header should be more prominent than its candidates' names and a candidate's name should be bolder than their party affiliation. Candidates' names and options should be presented with equal importance.

Seeded in a presentation by Marcia Lausen, this list was created in 2008 by AIGA Design for Democracy’s Jessica Hewitt and Drew Davies. The tips are currently featured on the EAC’s website and illustrated in the Center for Civic Design’s Field Guides to Ensuring Voter Intent.