Voices & Choices

Better Design, Better Democracy: Why Ballot Design Matters in Ranked Choice Elections

Better Design, Better Democracy: Why Ballot Design Matters in Ranked Choice Elections

The American conscience is etched with memories of the eventful 2000 elections, where the Palm Beach Post found that Palm Beach County’s Butterfly Ballot cost Al Gore the presidential elections. This example illustrates the importance of ballot design, where the position of elements on ballots can create misunderstanding for voters, increase the number of irregular ballots (ballots which include marking mistakes or other mistakes that make counting the ballot impossible), and ultimately de-legitimize an election. Ballot design is equally important in ranked choice voting (RCV) elections, as experts have found voters handle ranked ballots well when they follow best practices, helping to undermine dectractors’ claims to the contrary. Thus, studying RCV ballot design elements associated with ballot irregularities in order to rectify them can ensure that ranked choice voting continues to gain traction in the United States.

The Science of Ballot Design 

An important element of ballot design is the reading ease of the instructions. Voters across literacy levels must be able to understand the instructions provided to them on the ballot, as clear instructions make it more likely that a document will be used. This is why plain language, defined as “wording, structure, and design [that] are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information,” must be used on ballots. The reading ease of ballots highly correlates with the number of irregular ballots, demonstrating the importance of simplifying the language on the ballots. An added bonus for election administrators is that plain language requires less space, which makes for shorter ballots!

Spoiled ballot instructions must be included on ballots, as it is part of American culture to attempt to fix mistakes. Spoiled ballot instructions are for what to do when a voter makes a mistake marking their ballot. Unless election administrators indicate on the ballot what to do if voters spoil their ballots, voters may try to rectify their mistake instead of asking for a new ballot, which would result in a voter casting a ballot that would not be counted.

Irregular Ballots

Ballots designated as “irregular” by counties and cities are often a combination of overvotes and undervotes. Overvotes are votes “in which the voter has indicated a preference for more than the maximum number of selections allowed”. Overvotes most likely result from a voter’s mistake. On the other hand, undervotes are “votes in which the voter has selected fewer candidates than allowed or has skipped voting for the office entirely.” They may be an intentional choice to skip the race or to “bullet vote,” but it may also result from a voter’s mistake.

How to Ensure Good Ballot Design to Minimize Irregular Ballots?

Prior to the implementation of a new ballot design, election administrators and advocates must conduct usability testing to ensure that their intended ballot design will be clear enough for voters. According to the Center for Civic Design, usability testing is “a tool for learning where people interacting with a design[…] encounter frustration, and translating what you see and hear to make a better design that will eliminate those frustrations.” Moreover, following the use of a particular ballot design during an election, election administrators and advocates can collect ballot image data and ballot design information for that election to conduct post-election analysis.

Looking Towards the Future

As cities, counties and states move to adopt ranked choice voting, it is imperative that political scientists and government managers alike collaborate to implement best practices of ballot design in order to make voters’ choices at the ballot box as simple as possible, which will reduce the number of irregular ballots. However, ballot design does not exist in a vacuum; it must exist in an environment where pre-election materials and election results are given as much care as ballots in order to be simple and usable for all.

As part of a project of the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, the Center for Civic Design tested various ranked ballot designs. Their detailed report included many important principles for RCV ballot design, as well as a number of questions for the future. For more information on RCV ballot design, visit our ballot design page or the website for the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, where a team of retired election officials are working to provide resources to election administrators conducting or considering ranked choice voting elections.

*Blogs at FairVote reflect the views of the author, but do not mean FairVote endorses or supports those views.



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