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Nov 2004 Contents

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Project Summary: Punch-Card Voting Instructions for Low-Literacy Voters in the Ohio 2004 Presidential Election

by: Naomi A. Kleid
InfoExact, Inc. (

Using the list of Usability and Design Consultants prepared by the UPA's Voting and Usability Project, a leader from the Greater Cleveland Voter Registration Coalition found a consultant to help develop usable punch-card voting instructions for low-literacy voters. The usability consultant and the non-partisan citizens' group developed a mailer format for the instructions and a flyer (handout) format. They also made the instructions available from the Web (see: After conducting usability tests of the instructions (according to directions provided by the consultant), the group printed more than 40,000 copies for use in Cuyahoga County. Additional copies were printed by the Latino community (after they translated the instructions into Spanish) and by groups in Summit County (around Akron). The citizens' group felt that the instructions were many times better than previous instructions, and an early analysis of voting patterns suggests that the instructions may have helped reduce the number of discarded punch-card ballots in the 2004 Presidential election.

The Greater Cleveland Voter Registration Coalition, a non-partisan citizens' group in Ohio, needed to produce usable punch-card voting instructions for low-literacy voters. Research by Norman Robbins, leader of the voting instructions activity within the Coalition's Education Project, showed that on average 4% of the punch-card votes in the City of Cleveland were "unrecorded" in the 2000 Presidential election. The percentage of lost votes was much higher, up to 13%, in some precincts where low-literacy voters were thought to reside. Determined to fulfill the Coalition's motto and "Make Every Vote Count," Robbins turned to the Web for help.

A Google search produced a list of Web sites and somewhere down the list was an organization called the Usability Professionals' Association, said Robbins; "I checked it out and saw a whole section on voting." He also saw the UPA's list of usability and design consultants to help with voting projects.

When Robbins called me, we discussed the high-level goals for the project, and I accepted his aggressive deadlines. I suggested solutions: Low-literacy voters would respond best to short instructions, simple drawings (no photographs), and simple, concrete words (no abstract concepts). I also outlined three key working methods:

  1. The team needed an illustrator to prepare good line drawings.
  2. I needed to see and feel the actual voting materials (shipped overnight), so I could write about the voters' actions clearly and specifically.
  3. The instructions needed to undergo usability testing with representative users.

Robbins agreed. In addition, he identified a small team of message contributors and reviewers, and he helped identify similar instructions developed by such organizations as the Cleveland Board of Elections and the City of Los Angeles.

After studying the predecessor materials, I started drafting and designing instructions. Five drafts later, I had instructions with rough illustrations that fit on a single page.

I sent that draft to the team in a Microsoft Word file so they could edit in mark-up mode and in Adobe PDF format so they could see the layout. Annie Phillips, a specialist in mass communications located in Seattle, and Judy Gallo, Co-coordinator of the Greater Cleveland Voter Registration Coalition organization, provided excellent comments. I'm sure that other people were also involved; Norman Robbins coordinated input so I could focus on responding to comments from just a few people.

As the project progressed, its scope increased. Another team within the citizens' coalition was planning to mail a large postcard of general voting instructions (how to learn where to vote and get a ride to the polling place, what to do at the polling place, etc.). I suggested that instead of card stock they should use paper (which would be cheaper), and print their general instructions on the outside of a folded 8.5 x 11-in. mailer with the punch-card instructions on the inside. Robbins obtained agreement.

I sent usability testing instructions to Robbins and he trained testers who went to three homeless shelters in Cleveland to find participants. Sebastian Robins supervised the testing and consolidated the results from 20 - 25 tests. In response, I changed some of the wording, moved the steps around, and shifted some of the information from one step to another.

Meanwhile the very talented art staff in Cleveland, headed by Nicole Capuana, created the illustrations and final layout for the mailer (using Adobe Illustrator). Nicole produced camera-ready copy just one week and 8 hours after I received Robbins' initial call. (Because of active legal motions, the printing was delayed while the group determined the best advice to give voters regarding provisional ballots.)

Next, the Coalition needed an MS Word version of the general information from the mailer and an updated version of my MS Word punch-card instructions. They wanted to print these files back-to-back and distribute them as a flyer at the churches and shopping centers (so that distribution would not rely on mailing, alone), and they wanted to make the files available for translation. I prepared easy to read MS Word files that could be modified more easily than Illustrator files.

The Latino community in Cleveland translated the flyer files and Robbins asked me to paste the Spanish text into my MS Word files. I don't know Spanish, so I asked my friend M. Eta Trabing, a Spanish translator in Houston with an international reputation, to make sure I put the words in the right places. Eta found errors; I fixed what I could, but we did not have a procedure for discussing or changing the translation.

In all, the team came to include participants in Cleveland, Seattle, Houston, and Cary (North Carolina). We produced:

  • A mailer with punch-card voting instructions on one side and general voting information plus a space for an address label on the other side in English (in Adobe Illustrator).
  • A flyer with punch-card voting instructions on one side and general voting information on the other side in an English version and a Spanish version (in MS Word).

At least 40,000 English-language copies of the instructions were distributed in the Greater Cleveland area of Cuyahoga County. The flyer was also used in Summit County around Akron. It may have been used elsewhere, because Nicole Capuana thoughtfully posted it on the Coalition Web site at:

According to Norman Robbins' preliminary analysis, the number of voters in the Greater Cleveland area increased by about 10% this year yet the number of punch-card voting errors was roughly the same, overall. Thus, there may have been an effective 10% reduction in errors. Some of this decrease may be due to the information we helped develop and some may be due to educational campaigns by the Secretary of State that included videos on local television stations. Robbins believes that our instructions were far better than any printed instructions he'd seen previously. He also thinks that they could have been improved by making the message – "If you make a mistake, ask for a new ballot" – more prominent than it was.

The instructions are viewable at the Coalition Web site:

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