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November Elections: What’s wrong with the voting user experience?


via aprilzosia on Flickr

Did you vote last Tuesday and question the layout of the ballot, the experience and the strange machines with unlabeled buttons? You’re not the only one!

What’s your image of voting? My mental model is deceptively simple. Remember in elementary school when you put your head down on the table and raised your hand? Filled out a ballot for student body president on paper and put it in a box? Electoral voting should feel that simple and smoothly run from the voter’s (user’s) perspective, but instead, the complexities of the American system come through and make the experience feel challenging. How has such an intuitive process become so unintuitive?

The Help America Vote Act: Mandating design changes

Since the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, the voting experience has changed with each national election. HAVA, the Congressional response to the 2000 election problems, mandated various requirements for voting machines, ballots and security. All fifty states have begun to put these changes into effect. My home state, New York, was one of the last.

HAVA made sense at the time of its creation and it does now. The bill had a few loopholes, which Congress has attempted to fix on various occasions, with limited success. Rather than the bill itself, it is the state Boards of Election who have failed our citizens through poor design and implementation.

HAVA voting system standards:

  • All states must replace punch card and lever voting systems with new technologies.
  • The voter can verify the votes selected before the ballot is to be cast.
  • The voter must have an opportunity to correct any error or be provided a replacement ballot.
  • The system must notify the voter of overvotes and provide an opportunity to correct such errors. (An overvote is when a voter chooses more than one candidate or option in a specific race. An undervote is when no candidate or option is selected.)

Voting: The design challenges

Do the rules from HAVA sound familiar? Have a passion for form design and usability? The voting experience may just be one of the greatest design problems facing our government. The nature of election law provides a few unusual constraints that could throw any UX Designer for a loop:

  • Design by Committee: Yes, nearly all election technologies, legislation and design decisions are made by local, state and federal Commissions. We, as UX Designers, like to design in teams, but definitely not by committee.
  • Design for the 100%, not 80%: We hold a widely accepted belief that it is enough to design for the majority of our users, rather than design for edge cases and let the majority suffer the consequences. In election law, and rightfully so, the focus is on 100% of the audience.
  • Most people vote once a year, if not less. Many vote only once every four years. System familiarity is uncommon.

Challenge: The Full Experience

It took eight years for New York to replace its lever machines with new technology. Our new system is mediocre at best. Upon arrival, you sign in and are handed a ballot. You then proceed to a privacy booth, where you fill in the ballot, a bubble form. Next you walk the ballot over to a scanner, where it is inserted and you will be notified that the vote has been counted or if there are any errors.

There were three lines, first to sign in, second to fill out the ballot and finally, to insert the ballot into the optical scanner. The NYC Board of Elections now requires all voters be given a “privacy sleeve,” a folder in which to keep your vote choices unseen, when walking across the room.

A more efficient method would require more machines, no privacy sleeves. The machines are an expense that the state likely could not afford.

Challenge: Readability & Ballot Design

The new system in New York requires that all choices appear on one single sheet. With various races and ballot questions, how did New York solve this problem? Size 6 font. Yes, really, size 6.

NY Sample Ballot

Sample Ballot From NYC Board of Elections via Vote The New Way

In certain judicial races, we pick two or three choices, not one. The ballot uses each row to designate one choice. Sometimes rows are left blank when there are too many candidates to fit in one row and it spills over into a second row, on the right-hand side.

The formatting on the ballot was inconsistent and difficult to read, even for those with perfect vision.

Two ballot questions on the back could easily go unnoticed if a poll worker did not instruct you to turn the page over. There were no markings on the front to indicate that there was more content on the backside.

Challenge: Even More Constraints

Some of the problems I faced on Tuesday as a knowledgeable voter are much less challenging than in other states. What does your ideal ballot look like? What is the full experience? Consider the following potential constraints:

  • In New York, there were two policy questions posed on the ballot. What about states where there are 20, 30 or even 50 questions? How does ballot design work then?.
  • Multi-lingual support, which does not have to be met by printing multiple languages on one ballot.
  • Verifiable paper records of all votes. Touch-screen voting has long been perceived as a major security risk because the voting records are not easily verified or recounted at a later date.
  • Fast recording and reporting technology. Voters expect results within minutes of when polls close. Any system must provide immediate vote totals.

Moving forward…

Frustrated about bad design infringing on our great democracy? In light of recent elections, what problems did you encounter while voting?

A special hat tip to Dana Chisnell, whose SXSW 2011 panel will cover these topics in much more depth.

The Brennan Center for Justice has released various studies on voting rights, including its work on Ballot & Election Material Design.

About the Author

Julie Blitzer

Julie Blitzer is the User Experience Lead for Advomatic and a former political staffer. She has a strong interest in how governments interact with citizens through the web and other technologies. Find her on Twitter @zhuli.


  • Dana Chisnell Reply

    Thanks for the hat tip, Julie! But I think you’re too soft on the new New York voting system.

    It’s not mediocre. It’s inexcusably, needlessly difficult to use.

    New York is the 50th state to change voting systems after HAVA. It could have learned lessons from all of the other states, but it chose not to.

    Nearly a half million voters did not vote on the ballot questions. In other states this would be an incredible undervote rate – about 43% – but the NY state board of elections feels this is acceptable because it’s not that different from the undervote rate on the lever machines. Undervotes on ballot questions on optical scan ballots in other places hover around 10% – lower for optical scan ballots that use a ballot layout that is *not* “full face.”

    The design challenges are even more than you’ve written about (though that’s a great list). I wrote about some of them yesterday, too, here:

    Keep up the good work,

  • Marcos Nähr Reply

    I recommend all to see how Brazil has put an ‘e’ in vote. BBC on this article takes a look at the country’s pioneering use of electronic voting and how it has changed the way officials are elected.

    • Julie Blitzer Reply


      The best part of that system is how low cost the machines are. Do you know if they produce any sort of paper record as well? The paper recording is a requirement here in the US that comes from HAVA.

      The fingerprinting for identification would never fly here, for privacy reasons. There is even huge push back on asking voters for photo ID at the polling place.

      Was the learning curve for this system steep or was it adopted fairly quickly?

  • HammHetfield Reply

    “Did you vote last Tuesday and question the layout of the ballot”…

    No, because I am not american, even if the blog is in english, assuming all the readers come from the US is kind of irritating for us : the people from the rest of the world…

    That being said, the article was really interesting, hard to believe that someone actually thought it was a good system…

    • Julie Blitzer Reply

      This post was meant for a global audience, but I unfortunately only have expertise on American ballot design and election law.

      Ever notice how American media often report election and ballot fraud in other countries with an air of condescension? So ironic since we are much worse off than many other countries. Part of the problem is the State Boards of Elections control implementation (since state government structures will require different kinds of ballots), while the Federal government, through Congress, mandates certain design constraints, like the paper record.

    • Danny Reply

      Hamm you’re kidding right? You find it “irritating” that a US based blogs is talking about elections in its own country? The article makes no such assumption that the entire readership is US based, however why in the world should that preclude them from talking about a design problem this country faces?

      The solution is quite simple oh irritated one, if you don’t like the content don’t read it. And how about a little gratitude for the amazing and incredibly valuable content this blog puts out instead of complaining? God some people are just too much.

      Hamm you’re kidding right? You find it “irritating” that a US based blog is talking about elections in its own country? The article makes no such assumption that the entire readership is US based, however why in the world should that preclude them from talking about a design problem this country faces?

      The solution is quite simple oh irritated one, if you don’t like the content don’t read it. And how about a little gratitude for the amazing and incredibly valuable content this blog puts out instead of complaining? God some people are just too much.

      Julie, fantastic article. I’ve long been frustrated with the lack of consistency and standards with our voting system. I also find it interesting that although HAVA is a federal mandate, its still up to the individual states on how they interpret these “guidelines”. It really leaves it open for results like what you found in new york. Would you be a fan of a one design / one voting method for the entire US populace?

  • Julie Blitzer Reply

    Thanks for the feedback. That story about the 43% undervote didn’t come out until after I submitted this article.

    The worst part is that there were supposed to be SEVEN ballot questions but the design/layout of the ballot couldn’t fit all the text so they combined them down to two questions. They actually drastically changed the content of something that very much affects law and elections because the design is so horrendous.

    I’m going to investigate what it takes and who you need to know to end up on that commission that controls ballot design.

    Great post from your blog. Found out yesterday that I’m definitely heading to SXSW this Spring, looking forward to your panel!

  • Daniel Breer Reply

    I live in Kansas and being an independent makes it very difficult. I have known all my life that it is a Red State … but now I don’t care. I want them all FIRED … No more wasting time …. either do something or get out ..
    As far as voting .. I live in Johnson County and the voting machines are computerize and work PERFECTLY … do bad the Politicians DON’T …

  • Investigation Services Reply

    Right now our electoral process is going through a very rough transition, as modern technology begins to take over from paper ballots. Despite the fact that there has been no evidence of major problems with computerized voting machines, skepticism is running very high, and people seem to just be waiting for something to go horribly wrong.

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