August 16, 2012

I. In Focus This Week

NOTE: Our friends and colleagues at the Pew Center on the States have launched a new monthly newsletter that summarizes the latest work and research of the Election Initiatives team. You can see the inaugural issue here, which highlights Pew’s work on voter registration and looks back at recent Election Data Dispatches focusing on provisional ballots and the cost of elections. You can subscribe at the bottom of the page to get this information monthly. Check it out! – Doug Chapin, Director


A Conversation with Dana Chisnell
Field Guides To Ensuring Voter Intent

By Doug Chapin

Recently, the MacArthur Foundation announced that it was awarding a grant to the University of Minnesota (which also sponsors to support publication and distribution of a series of Field Guides To Ensuring Voter Intent.

The Field Guides are the brainchild of civic design maven Dana Chisnell, who has carved out an important role in working with election officials to bring good design to election administration. She originally sought crowdfunding for the Field Guides at Kickstarter, exceeding her goal of $15,000 by more than 25 percent. The MacArthur grant extends the project, and Dana is optimistic about expanding it further in 2013 and beyond.

The Guides have gotten rave reviews from election officials, who praise them for their attractiveness and usefulness.

One new fan – Sonoma County, Calif. Clerk Janice Atkinson – called the Guides “clear, concise and easy to follow” and opined that it is “imperative that the principles in these [G]uides be taken into account whenever legislation designating ballot format, instructions or wording is drafted.”

I caught up recently with Dana at her home in North Andover, Mass. as she prepared to bring her Guides – and a passion for election design – to the upcoming National Association of State Election Directors meeting taking place later this week in Boston.

What brought you to election design in the first place?

I was pretty solidly convinced that the election in 2000 was decided because of a ballot design problem, and I was disgusted that the issue was hijacked by technology and security wonks. So, I started looking for something to do locally and ended up doing two things: I joined what is now the Usability In Civic Life Project headed up by fellow design expert Whitney Quesenbery, and I got myself on a citizens advisory committee in my city (then San Francisco) called the Ballot Simplification Committee.

Why the Guides?

While the classic problems of ballot design are very well understood now – thanks to major research projects undertaken by the EAC and NIST, as well as excellent academic research done by people like Kristen Greene and Mike Byrne at Rice University – there are several complex, unstudied and unresolved ballot design problems that remain.

I wonder about the interaction of multi-language ballots with vote-by-mail, along with a voting population that is generally skewing older. Local election officials want desperately to know what to do about issues like these, as well as how to handle alternative counting methods. So there are still many open questions about how to design ballots that include lots of different things for voters to deal with.

We’ve also learned a lot of lessons over the last ten years about how to help local election officials. Although the EAC’s Effective Designs for the Administration of Elections is excellent in its level of detail and its recommendations based on research, those hundreds of pages are not optimally accessible to people in counties who are administering elections and working with voting system vendors to implement in the ballots they generate. So, over time, the few of us who are still working in civic design came to realize that we had to help local election officials see what the priorities were and how it really is quite simple to implement one or two design elements that can make a huge difference in usability for voters.

We wanted to help people see that they could do this within the constraints they have. The Design For Democracy Project of AIGA had already boiled the Effective Designs down to a top 10. When Whitney and I plus our colleague Drew Davies started to look at what else was out there that would be helpful, we saw a bunch of opportunities.

What’s in the Guides, exactly?

The first four Field Guides cover research findings that are already published in much longer formats: designing usable ballots; writing instructions voters understand; testing ballots for usability; and making effective poll worker materials. The next Field Guides will cover findings about designing county election web sites, effective voter education materials, multi-language ballots, and vote-by-mail design and usability. These will come out later in 2012 or the first half of 2013.

We’re not that far from November … What can be accomplished before Election Day?

There are dozens of small things you can do in time for the November general. But I’ll pick 5.

  1. Download PDFs of the Field Guides at They’re short and sweet, and you’ll see that toward the back of each one is a checklist you can use to review your ballots and other voter- and poll worker-facing materials against. (You can also request printed copies at the same web site.)
  2. One of the easiest and most effective things you can do is edit instructions and explanations for plain language. In some places, the instructions on the ballots can’t be changed because the wording is embedded in election legislation. But you can work on all the supporting materials: voter registration forms, instruction flyers that go in vote-by-mail packets, in-booth instructions and posters, sample ballots, and voter information pamphlets – these are all ripe for clean-up.
  3. Choose one design thing to change in the ballot and just do that. If it were up to me, I would ban all uppercase type. Using sentence case (yes, even for headings and titles) is easier for voters to read.
  4. If you can do two ballot design things, move the instructions to the voter to the beginning of the contests. On a typical paper optical scan ballot, there are 3 vertical columns. The instructions on how to mark the ballot should be at the top of the left column, where voters are most likely to see and read them. (Most opscan voting systems do support this ballot design.
  5. Watch voters use the ballot. Even if you only have time to watch 3 or 4 or 5 people vote in a sort of mock election setup (without training or helping the voter), you can learn amazing things about where voters make mistakes and what to do in the design and instructions to prevent voters from making those mistakes. Each time you watch one person voting just takes about 10 minutes. Like proofreading, this is an effort that can prevent embarrassing an election department, as well as undervotes, recounts, and lawsuits.

What’s the longer-term plan?

Long-term, I see three major areas to work on: election law reform to stop designing ballots in county and state code, voting system standards that are technology independent, and designing voting systems that are universally usable rather than band-aid solutions for accessibility.

In the meantime, I’m hoping to –

  • Get a bunch of volunteers started collecting data for the county election web sites project.
  • Incorporate a couple of small changes to the second printing of the first four Field Guides.
  • Give webinars on usability testing ballots to county election officials (and maybe legislators) across the country.

I’m also hoping to find some time after the election to cycle across Normandy.

Sounds awesome. Where exactly should folks look for you at NASED?

I’ll be everywhere, really, carrying around copies of the Field Guides. I’m not formally on the program, and since I’m not selling the Field Guides I don’t have a vendor booth either. If folks want to meet up they should shoot me an email or hit me up on Twitter (@danachis).

II. Election News This Week

  • Big problems continued on the Big Island this week with multiple reports of polling places opening late during Saturday’s primary forcing Gov. Neil Abercrombie to extend the polling hours in Hawaii County for an additional 90 minutes. Even after a debriefing, it’s unclear exactly how many polling places on the island opened late, but some officials believe as many as half of them opened anywhere from a few minutes to 90 minutes late. On Tuesday, embattled Hawaii County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi apologized for a chaotic primary day. “You can attribute responsibility for the failures to me,” she told a community meeting according to KHNL. “All I can offer to you is that I’m very sorry and that it was a very big problem.” Following the primary problems, both the county council and the state began a review of what happened on primary day, as well as overall problems at the elections office.
  • Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler has assigned two additional staff members from his office to assist Teller County during the upcoming election. Teller County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Jim Ignatius told KRDO the additions are a result of two reports filed by state observers who were present during the primary elections in June. The reports cited incomplete ballot envelopes and a lack of staff training as issues impacting the primary election.  “He did over one year’s worth of evaluations to come to the conclusion that help was needed during the primary. Now that the evaluation was taken on the primary, it was pretty clear that we needed some assistance, and we got it,” Ignatius told the television station. Arapahoe County Deputy Election Manager Al Davidson and Debbie Silva, statewide Colorado voter registration system expert, will be working with Teller County during the general election in November.
  • You pretty much have to pay for everything on flights these day—checked luggage, food, blankets, etc.—but one thing you won’t have to pay for on Virgin America flights from San Francisco to D.C. is to register to vote! The airline has partnered with Rock the Vote to provide passengers with voter registration forms if they wish to spend some of their flying time getting registered to vote. According to the San Jose Mercury News, the “mile-high voter registration is a first for Rock the Vote.”
  • Personnel News: On Wednesday, South Dakota Elections Director Aaron Lorenzen resigned from his job to pursue an opportunity in the private sector. Later that afternoon, Secretary of State Jason Gant announced the hiring of long-time retired Minnehaha County Auditor Sue Roust.

III. Opinion

National News: Military voters, II; Voter ID, II; Vote fraud; Book reviews; Twitter;

Florida: Early voting; Absentee voting; Palm Beach County; Sarasota County

Georgia: Smooth election

Hawaii: Primary problems

Iowa: Voter purge, II

Maine: Voter fraud

Massachusetts: Voter registration, II; Voter ID

Michigan: Citizenship question; Fair elections; Overseas voters; Election snafu; Voter suppression;

Minnesota: Primary system; Election date

Missouri: Election costs

North Carolina: Early voting, II

Ohio: Early voting, II, III; Absentee voting

Pennsylvania: Voter ID, II, III, IV, V; Election reform

Texas: Voter registration

Utah: Voter ID

Vermont: Access to the ballot

Virginia: Voter rolls

**Some sites may require registration.

V. Job Openings

electionlineWeekly publishes election administration job postings each week as a free service to our readers. To have your job listed in the newsletter, please send a copy of the job description, including a web link to Job postings must be received by 5pm on Wednesday in order to appear in the Thursday newsletter. Listings will run for three weeks or till the deadline listed in the posting.

Elections Director, Luzerne County, Pa. — Performs work of planning, directing, coordinating and controlling overall operations of the Bureau of Elections Department to ensure that goals and objectives are accomplished by performing the following duties personally or through subordinate staff and/or supervisors; performs related work as required or assigned by the division head. Minimum Qualifications: Bachelors Degree from accredited college or university with major course work in public, business administration or closely related field; four years of proven elections management experience; two years supervisory or administrative capacity; two years management experience involving campaigns/elections; experience with electronic voting machines (programming & maintenance). Salary: $50-56,000. For complete job posting and how to apply, click here.

Legal Externs, Fair Elections Legal Network, Washington, D.C.The Fair Elections Legal Network (FELN) is seeking reliable law students with strong academic credentials for legal externships for the fall 2012 school term.  Externs would be expected to commit to a minimum of 10-15 hours per week. Primary responsibilities will include supporting the work of the legal staff to identify and respond to legal and administrative obstacles to voting rights and voter participation.  Duties will include performing legal research; identifying relevant legal, rulemaking, or legislative proceedings; and interacting with election reform organizations and election officials. Additional responsibilities may include assisting with outreach and organizing for a student voting project. Great opportunity for exposure to election law for someone who is a self-starter and comfortable handling significant responsibility. Must possess strong research, analytic, and written and oral communications skills. Ability to meet deadlines required. To apply please send a cover letter, resume, and writing sample to Ben Hovland at