These UX Designers are Rethinking the Voter Ballot

I was five the first time I went to vote, excited for a field trip with my dad that conflicted with bed time. The polling place was a school gym. The room echoed with the clunk of machine levers as each vote was cast, and I munched on brownies from the bake sale set up in the lobby. That visit, which was repeated each election throughout my childhood, made it statistically far more likely that I would become a regular voter myself. Many people aren’t exposed to the voting process at a young age, and millions never make it to the polls.

Whitney Quesenbery and Dana Chisnell, co-founders of The Center for Civic Design, are focused on those people: where they fall off the voter journey, and how to get them back on. So they’ve set out to bring UX strategies to the myriad systems of local, state, and federal election offices, using human centered design thinking to shepherd citizens through the registration process to the moment they mark their choice on the ballot.

Chisnell and Quesenbery got into election design around 2001—the year that the infamous Florida butterfly ballot took over the headlines. Chisnell remembers watching the news as voters left the Miami polls questioning who they’d voted for and wondering what the design process behind the curtain had been. As it turned out, it was pretty flimsy. Usability testing and human centered design hadn’t found their way into elections at that point. Instead, design decisions reflected the perspective of the election officials: Did the materials meet regulations? And how would the ballot be counted?

Like a happy meeting of two platonic halves obsessed with voter intent, it wasn’t long before Quesenbery and Chisnell found each other. They ran a Kickstarter together, producing the Field Guide to Ensuring Voter Intent. It was free for election officials and raised over $20,000. “We were like, ‘This is getting less like a hobby and more like a thing,’ recalls Quesenbery on their ‘will you be my co-founder’ conversation.

The Field Guide to Ensuring Voter Intent helps local officials create well designed ballots. Photo by Rowan Bradley

They launched The Center for Civic Design shortly thereafter. Their slogan? “Democracy is a design problem.” They’ve been together ever since, except for a brief sabbatical when Chisnell joined the United States Digital Service—the newly minted founder had planned to say no, but when Obama appeared on her White House tour she was hooked. “It was a very compelling recruiting pitch,” she admits.

Over the last decade, Civic Design has worked to dispel the myth that non-engaged citizens are apathetic. Instead, they’re trying to understand how the system has disenfranchised the non-voting and the non-registered. They are finding that, between regulations, time constraints, and lack of transparency, it’s just plain hard for people to travel the path from registration to the point where they have a ballot in their hands. The good news? A lot of these challenges can be solved by the tools of design: plain language, white space, wayfinding, new technologies, and a predilection for usability tests. Upgrading the voting systems hasn’t been easy. “The processes are 19th or 20th century processes and design is a 21st century process,” says Chisnell.

Sometimes the issues are too complex for just a copy change. Remember the infamous Virginia tied election of 2018, which was decided by pulling a slip of paper out of a fishbowl?

Civic Design has to be good at building trust in order to nudge government offices embrace change. Their secret? Listening.“Talk less, ask more questions,” says Chisnell. Don’t make assumptions. Try to understand the problem, the constraints and the resources. The two are the first to admit that they aren’t experts in running elections—they leave that to the election officials who, each year, martial…

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