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Feb 2006 Contents

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Designing Better Elections

By Josephine Scott
UPA Voting and Usability Project

Josephine Scott is a usability engineer at Compuware Corporation in Detroit, Michigan. Before she became a user experience professional, she served as an election administrator for the State of Michigan for 14 years.

Last year, UPA joined the Professional Association for Design (AIGA) in a strategic project, Design for Democracy, to mobilize an interdisciplinary group of research and design professionals with a mission to increase participation in the civic experience through usability and design. Although Design for Democracy has projects in many areas of public life, including emergency evacuation and wage reporting forms, elections are one of the largest and most visible projects.

After the 2000 election, Design for Democracy worked with election officials in Illinois, Oregon and Nevada to design ballots, polling place signage, registration forms and other election materials. The election design system establishes a visual style, use of color, and an approach to illustrating instructions that make the ballot and polling place more usable.

It’s more than just good looks. After Cook County, Illinois, voters cast yes or no, votes retain judges in each election. When they switched to a punch-card ballot from a paper ballot, participation in these races dropped:

Punchcard ballot used in 2000

The redesigned ballot restored participation rates – even using the same punch-card machine.

Redesigned ballot used in 2002

In 2002, participation rose to previous levels

Training Election Officials and Experts
This year, Design for Democracy will teach the election design system to election officials around the country. These training sessions will take place at national election conferences this spring and summer, in preparation for the 2006 elections.

As part of this program, Design for Democracy is also cross-training of design, user research, and usability professionals from around the country. These regional experts will:

  • Lead training workshops for election officials, designers, and vendors who want to improve the design and usability of their election materials.
  • Act as the contact person for local election officials, coordinating training and assisting with design and usability requests.
  • Evaluate the work of vendors so that the Design for Democracy standard of excellence is maintained.

The regional experts include UPA members Dana Chisnell, Louise Ferguson, Catherine Forsman, Carol Carter, Whitney Quesenbery, Sokol Zace, and Josie Scott.

“Having this layer of regional experts is important for Design for Democracy’s ability to scale in the next couple of years,” said Dori Tunstall, managing director of Design for Democracy. “We’ve recruited experts of the highest caliber and depth of knowledge. We know now that when a local election official calls, he or she will have someone to help them make complicated decisions about design, accessibility, and usability testing.”

Ethics in Elections
People who are new to elections can be surprised at the intensity of the environment. While the design process for most products usually involves only those involved in making the product, elections and other government projects are important to a broad range of advocacy groups.

Every recommended change in procedure, every new ballot design – in fact, any change in the election environment will be scrutinized for the implications to the parties and people affected. Also unlike private enterprise, where executives and managers can steer change, voting reform often requires no less than a change in the law to allow election officials to make them happen. Elections and other government projects, by their nature, require nearly complete transparency to avoid accusations of bias.

As more design and usability professionals work in elections, Design for Democracy has recommended that their experts begin with a code of conduct and employ “sunshine” practices to help them work in the public spotlight. To meet this need, Design for Democracy created “Ethical Guidelines in Voting.” These ethical guidelines extend the UPA and AIGA codes of conduct and provide techniques for design and usability professionals to avoid the appearance of conflict or bias. Among the guidelines are:

  • Disclose funding sources, particularly partisan sources.
  • Disclose participation in partisan activities. However, it is never necessary to disclose how a professional (or any other citizen) will vote or has voted.
  • Note any modification – and its rationale – to a standard design or evaluation activity.

The Design for Democracy ethical guidelines, used along with AIGA and UPA codes of conduct, broadly guide the conduct of design and usability practitioners throughout the world. Follow one or both of these codes and a practitioner is likely to steer clear of ethical complications in the complex world of elections.

Ethical Guidelines in Voting” (PDF)

Design for Democracy website

Design for Democracy election design site

Image Credits
Figure 3 – The research on voting rates was done by: Klumpp, Albert J. "Judicial Retention Elections in Cook County: Exercise of Democracy, or Exercise in Futility?" Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois at Chicago, 2005.

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