OMAHA, Neb. — Campaigns routinely spend millions of dollars on get-out-the-vote drives, but it’s money down the drain if voters can’t figure out the ballot.
That’s where Drew Davies comes in.
The college art major has parlayed his knack for graphic design into a career as one of the nation’s premier ballot fix-it guys. His job description may come as a surprise to those who assume that the federal government has ironed out the kinks since the 2000 presidential election uproar in Florida.
As Mr. Davies can attest, there are still causes for concern. He sees ballots jammed with races, impossibly tiny print and fill-in bubbles that don’t quite align with candidates’ names.
“It’s not just about prettying things up,” said Mr. Davies, who founded Oxide Design in 2001 after earning a fine arts degree from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “Design is affecting our democracy. It’s affecting your lives. Look at the election in 2000: Bad design affected your life.”
His work with the nonprofit Center for Civic Design to create 10 pocket-sized field guides for state and local election officials has been honored by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City, which will showcase the pamphlets as part of an exhibit starting Sept. 30.
The project grew out of a comprehensive best-practices document on ballot design adopted in 2007 by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. It is a nearly 400-page tome that hardly anybody reads.
“They delivered a copy to every election commissioner across the nation, but we joke that it got filed next to the Ark of the Covenant,” said Mr. Davies. “I’m not sure how many people even cracked the spine. In retrospect, it’s just way too daunting.”
He and Dana Chisnell, co-director of the Center for Civic Design, responded by taking the document’s most critical information and boiling it down to streamlined presentations for elections officials nationwide.
“After about a year of she and I being out on the circuit, she was like, ‘What if we took those top 10 tips you’re doing and my top 10 tips for how to conduct your own mini-usability tests? And we started this set of dead-simple, super-easy-to-use pocket guides so that we could give those to election officials,” Mr. Davies said. “And they could think, ‘Oh, I can do this.’”
At first, Ms. Chisnell financed the project through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. Later, the MacArthur Foundation chipped in with a grant.
The pamphlets offer practical, understandable advice on practices such as making ballots easy to understand and designing election websites. Among the tips:
• Write in the active voice.
• Use short, simple, everyday words.
• Separate paragraphs by a space.
• Avoid centered type.
• Use lowercase letters.
‘Design nerds’ tackle ballots
Oxide Design, with an elaborate Lego city in its storefront window, has the look of a millennial operation. The tech company rubs shoulders with the hipster-friendly nightclubs, tattoo parlors and clothing shops that inhabit the revitalized brick buildings just west of downtown in Omaha’s historic Blackstone District.
Oxide’s focus on election-related design grew out of Mr. Davies’ fascination with creating better documents, such as voter information guides and registration forms. The firm describes its employees as “design nerds with OCD tendencies.”
“We had been more skewing into information design or forms design than most firms would have,” Mr. Davies said. “A lot of design firms think that is sort of beneath them. And I had always thought there was something really fascinating about making a driver’s license application way more usable and intuitive. Like, here’s a problem I can solve by just making this form better.”
He joined the American Institute for Graphic Arts’ “Design for Democracy” project while serving as president of the local chapter. He began working with the state of Nebraska on pilot testing for ballots.
“I just loved the work, and we were having a great time at Oxide doing it, so we continued to say yes,” he said. “The long and the short is that more and more people kept dropping out of this project. It’s muddy sort of work. So by the time the project ended and this document existed, we were some of the last men standing.”
Mr. Davies developed an appreciation for predicaments that election officials face. Hundreds of tasks come with running elections, and it’s rare to find someone with design experience.
“When I started doing this work, I thought, ‘All of these election officials are messing this up. Why aren’t they doing their jobs?’ Easy for me to say,” he said.
“We ask, it turns out, a lot of our election officials in this country. They just have a lot of things to manage — certifying candidates, certifying elections — and it turns out that by accident one of those things for them to manage is design of ballots and trying to make sure the ballots are set up in a way that they’re not going to cause another Florida 2000 debacle,” Mr. Davies said.
As a result of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, some of the most egregious bloopers seen in Florida have been addressed. No longer in use is the infamous “hanging chads” punch-card system that made the presidential recount so difficult, nor the “butterfly ballot,” which is believed to have resulted in thousands of Palm Beach County votes intended for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore accidentally going instead to Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan.
In his work with counties and states, Mr. Davies continues to spot red flags. One common blunder: ballots with three or more columns. Counties try to save money by fitting all of their races on a single page.
“When they start stacking these in three columns, all of a sudden the little oval you’re supposed to fill in is a lot closer to the left-of-line names in the next column over,” said Mr. Davies. “The people who need to get these ballots laid out really quickly are thinking, ‘Obviously it’s an oval, obviously it’s three columns,’ but a lot of people vote only every four years and it’s a long time since they saw a ballot of any sort.
“And all of a sudden, they’re making a collection of errors where, ‘I believe myself to have voted for these four candidates and I’m turning in my ballot,’ when in fact they have not,” Mr. Davies said. “They have voted in error on all of those because they shifted off a column. Those are the kinds of key, critical things on ballots we’re looking to fix.”
The ‘anywhere ballot’
One of his biggest projects this year was for the California Senate primary this month, when 34 candidates were running for nominations under the state’s recently implemented top-two system. The challenge: squeezing all 34 candidates onto one page without confusing voters.
“The counties we’re working with all reached out and said, ‘You guys are the election design people. What are we going to do?’ They know enough now from working with us that spanning two columns equals bad,” Mr. Davies said. “So we ended up with, ‘OK, it’s going to have to be two columns. Let’s try a couple of different ways of marking these things. Can we put different disclaimers in different places?’”
Fortunately, he said, some counties had enough resources to run quick usability tests. Local governments generally don’t have the time or money for focus groups, but the pamphlets recommend a cost-effective alternative: Round up a half-dozen volunteers and ask them to vote a prototype ballot.
“We had them run down to the library and say, ‘OK, try voting this form for me.’ The fact is, if you can get a test ballot in front of five random people — the less-avid voters, the better — you can pretty easily ferret out some of the worst problems,” Mr. Davies said.
After running a few such experiments, he said, “we were able to take that solution and send it as a mini-best-practices to all the counties in the state and say, ‘We did a little testing on this. Here’s how we recommend you treat these 34 candidates for the Senate.’”
Wherever there is a major ballot design project, chances are Mr. Davies is involved. He is working on the Future of California Elections initiative, funded by the Irvine Foundation. He also is helping develop the “anywhere ballot,” which would allow voters to mark ballots from their smartphones, laptops and tablets.
That is not the same as Internet voting, which Mr. Davies doesn’t foresee anytime soon because of security issues.
What worries him about this year’s elections? Mainly the out-of-date software and hardware used by local and state elections departments, much of it purchased with an infusion of federal dollars from the Help America Vote Act 14 years ago.
“We’re at a point now where there are going to be a lot of states and jurisdictions running machines well past their intended life,” Mr. Davies said.
He said it will probably fall to the federal government to fund updates to the system in the near future or risk an ill-timed computer failure in a key swing state during a presidential election.
As he points out, that is out of his control. What he can control is the design.
“If we take it on faith that they’ll update these machines and they’ll keep getting these systems in place, we want to make sure that the design, the interfaces that voters have to interact with on those machines, paper ballots and voter information guides end up being as usable as possible,” Mr. Davies said.
“And in that way, we’re making people’s lives better,” he said. “We’re actually helping the democracy we live in function better.”