Friday, July 25, 2008

Voting By Design

This week, the New York Times editorialized that eight years after the infamous "Butterfly Ballot" of Palm Beach County, Florida, little has been done to improve the design and usability of one of our most valuable weapons in the fight for democracy. As the Times notes, "…poor design and instructions have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of voters…"

The problem is not with design per se; I'm not a graphic designer, but I've worked with many very skilled ones over the past three decades. Any one of them would be able to design a ballot that would be easily understandable. Here's one suggestion for paper ballots, either optically-scanned or hand-tallied: one block for each race, separated by distinct borders; each candidate/party listed and a large check box, punch out or whatever right next to each candidate's name. Make it simple and you make it easy to understand. For electronic machines, the same format would work; just be sure the voter can see how many contests there are per page (maybe number them?) so that someone's not voting a particular race is a choice, not a mistake.

The instructions? Make the ballot design simple and you eliminate the need for complex instructions. "Mark only ONE box per office" (or two or three if it's something like a board of county commissioners). Clear design begets clear instructions.

That's the easy part. The hard part? Getting such a simple design mandated as a uniform national ballot template. Why is that hard? Start with meddling by local and regional politicians eager to retain control over their fiefdoms. Couple that with the parochial attitude that "we're different here" and intransigent party bureaucracies (all guilty) and you have the formula for as many different ballots as you have voting jurisdictions. There's a reason why franchise operations like Quizno's or McDonald's look, feel, taste and even smell the same whether they're in Detroit, Dubuque, Denver or Duluth. There's value in delivering the same experience nationwide. In the case of uniform ballots, how's better turnout for a start?

If America hopes to meet the challenges of 21st century global commerce, it won't happen unless we wean ourselves from 18th and 19th century political systems. Congress feels no pressure to change from local and regional politicians with vested interests. Voters must demand it.

While I'm on the subject of outmoded electoral systems, will we ever get a national presidential primary to replace the current – and ever more controversial – system of state primaries, all jockeying to have the most influence? When a candidate runs for governor of a state, do they hold a primary in each county (which would be 67 in the case of my home state, Pennsylvania)? The presidency is a national office; a national primary gives voters in every state the same shot. But the same dynamic that keep ballots "separate and confused" seems likely to derail such a long-overdue modernization.

In both cases, voters must demand these changes. Now that's one form of "on-demand programming" I'd watch.

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