As the eyes of the world turn to the US presidential election in just a few hours, it's a good time to remember just how important design is, even the design of something people take for granted (or at least they used to) like the design of a simple election ballot. It's almost exactly eight years ago that the results of the 2000 US election between Al Gore and George W. Bush began to hang in the balance. It would take thirty-six days after election day before the outcome was decided. Bush won Florida (and therefore the presidency) by 537 votes; nearly 6 million votes were cast in Florida (you do the math). Some said the election was handed to Bush by the Supreme Court (by halting the recount of ballots), and others say that the Democrats tried to steal the election by insisting that officials count the hanging chads. Lost in all the noise of that thirty-six day fiasco in 2000 is the fact that the problem was not really one of politics or shenanigans but of poor design. A nonpartisan investigation into the Florida elections in 2001 did indeed point to the crucial role design played: "Gore's best chance to win was lost before the ballots were counted, the study shows. Voters' confusion with ballot instruction and design and voting machines appears to have changed the course of U.S. history." (USA Today: Florida voter errors cost Gore the election.)
The lessons of the Florida butterfly ballot
There have been volumes written about the poorly designed butterfly ballot, and many graphic design classes have used the Palm Beach County ballot of 2000 as a good example of bad design (such as this class at MIT). In fact, two books that I often recommend — A Whole New Mind and Universal Principles of Design — both talk about the infamous butterfly ballot purely in terms of usability and design (i.e., poor design) and not politics. Below is a photo of the ballot used in Palm Beach County in 2000. It's not hard to imagine how someone with poor eye sight, who is tired and anxious, etc. could make a mistake. It seems many people realized their mistake as 5237 people in Palm Beach County alone voted for both Pat Buchanan and Al Gore and were therefore invalidated.
Alignment: fundamental design principle
There are several problems with the ballot above, but one big problem as pointed out in Universal Principles of Design is one of poor alignment:
— Universal Principles of Design
The fact that Gore was third on the ballot but looked second surely confused some (voters may have assumed that the major candidates would be in order). Yes, there are arrows, but you'd be surprised what people glance over or do not see (or think they see). Also, the word "Democratic" appears in ALL-CAPS in close proximity to a line that runs directly to the second punch hole, the punch hole for the Reform candidate.
The goal of a graphic designer — in almost every case — is to make things clear and eliminate as much ambiguity as possible. Clarity and ease of use should be the mantra. Often this will require usability testing, for what is obvious to the designer and the hand full of managers who approve that design may not be obvious to the thousands of users in the real world. So, how would you redesign the ballot above from 2000? Below is a rendering of one idea that you can find in the Universal Principles of Design book. This page from an old MIT class has many more. It's a good exercise and a good reminder that design matters, even the design of what seems like the simplest of things...like an election ballot.
A possible redesign adapted from page 23 of Universal Principles of Design.