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The last time a vice president from the Democratic Party sought the U.S. presidency, bad design probably cost him the election.

It was 20 years ago that Al Gore lost to Republican rival George W. Bush because he failed to carry Florida, a crucial swing state, in the Electoral College. Gore’s margin of defeat in Florida was razor-thin: just 537 votes. Immediately after the election, thousands of voters in Palm Beach County protested that they’d been baffled by new “butterfly ballots” that had led them inadvertently to vote for another candidate, conservative Pat Buchanan, or invalidate their ballot by marking it twice.

After a month of investigations, lawsuits, and nationwide outcry, rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court deemed Bush the victor. But the true tally in Palm Beach County remains one of American democracy’s great controversies.

Design is sure to influence the outcome of this year’s race as well. What’s harder to predict is how, by how much, and for whose benefit.

Eamon pointed out in this space a couple of months ago that ballot design has come a long way since the 2000 debacle, thanks to the work of institutions like the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Voting Experience Redesign Initiative (VERI), non-profit organizations like the Center for Civic Design (CCD), and design labs like IDEO.

Even so, CCD’s executive Whitney Quesenberry warns in a recent Washington Post article: “Every year we seem to have one or two big, horrible problems that make the news.”

As recently as the 2018 election, more than 430,000 absentee ballots were thrown out because of voter errors—often simple mistakes like failing to include a signature. That same year, almost 25,000 fewer people voted for senator than for governor in Florida’s Broward County, possibly because the box for the Senate race was listed at the bottom-left of the ballot under a translation of the voting instructions in Creole.

This year, with the pandemic raging, ballot design will matter more than in years past because a larger percentage of the electorate will be voting by mail.

The CCD, drawing on years of testing ballots and research into voter behavior, has produced a “field guide” for ballot design. Among its recommendations: don’t write important information in upper-case letters because that’s less legible than a combination of upper and lower-case letters; use a single sans-serif font like Arial or Helvetica; and don’t include political party emblems or other images that voters may not necessarily understand.

Dezeen this week explores how CCD designer Chistopher Patten redesigned the mail-in envelopes for North Carolina to make them simpler, clearer and less likely to be disqualified.

The United States goes to the polls in more than 3,000 counties, parishes, and boroughs. The CCD argues, optimistically perhaps, that “the anatomy of a ballot is fairly consistent” in all. It concedes, however, that ballot appearance is “constrained by legislation, technology, history, custom, cost and other factors” in the different districts.

Graphic designer Alicia Yin Cheng shows just how diverse, and often outlandish, the history and customs of those districts can be in a fascinating book the evolution of ballot, This Is What Democracy Looked Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot. In this interview with the Washington Post she reminds us that, in the early days of the republic, ballots were produced by individual parties and not cast in secret. They were meant, she says, to be “a public display of your allegiance.” They were a graphic carnival of riotous colors, fanciful lettering, and partisan (and often downright racist) cartoons and illustrations. It was not until 1900 that American states, inspired by the voting system of Australia, began administering standardized ballots and allowing citizens to cast their votes in private.

Cheng thinks modern ballots are “boring” and “graphically torpid.” But in the case of ballots, perhaps boring is best.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler

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