Let’s Respectfully Redesign Government

Democracy is a design problem. –Dana Chisnell

On May 27th I received an absentee ballot in the mail, my first as a California voter. As excited as I was to perform my civic duty, I had a busy week traveling to Long Beach to meet with our fellowship project stakeholders.

Sunday afternoon I finally sat down to take a look at my ballot, and the small pamphlet that came with it. While I frowned at the Word Art and counted all the different styles of arrows, I nearly missed a footnote that said my ballot needed to be mailed by May 29th in order to be counted in time; an election day postmark wasn’t good enough.

Voting pamphlet original

The original pamphlet that came with my ballot

Tuesday afternoon, during a (somewhat miraculous) period of free time, I spent about 20 minutes rethinking the voting pamphlet. I moved the information I wanted first — how to submit the ballot and what the deadlines were — to the top, and tried to clarify the dos and don’ts for filling out the ballot.

I tweeted a before-and-after picture, and by the time I dropped off my ballot in Oakland an hour later, it already had over 50 retweets.


A few days later, fellow Fellow Drew Wilson posted my image to Reddit where it quickly racked up over 140,000 views and sparked a discussion about ballot design. Many commenters questioned the ballot’s design, and wondered whether the complicated instructions about connecting the arrows could be replaced by a simpler design like filling in a circle. If a ballot is well designed, detailed instructions like this about how to use it shouldn’t be necessary.

Ballot design is regulated and has many constraints, and navigating the bureaucracy around voting processes takes time. No one asked Dana Chisnell to think about ballot design, but she saw an urgent need for it after the 2000 Florida election. Researching ballot design and voter guides was her passion project for years until she turned to Kickstarter to raise funds to turn her research into short, actionable field guides. Her work has helped election officials and poll workers all over the country, including the 2012 ballots in swing state Ohio.

I know whoever made the original pamphlet that came with my ballot had good intentions. Creating a simple design isn’t as simple as it looks, especially with the constraints of time, limited design tools, and bureaucracy. Whoever made the pamphlet really cared about helping me make my vote count. Three EASY steps, they say! The thumbs up clipart, while it may be a little silly and distracting, is a fine attempt at conveying dos and don’ts in a visual way.

Unsolicited redesigns can be problematic and may not always be the best method for creating change, especially when they’re shared with an adversarial tone. It’s easy to complain about something, or critique a design without considering the constraints behind it. But complaining without respectful constructive criticism isn’t going to change anything. Redesigning something can be a powerful way to explore alternative possibilities and start a discussion about how something could be improved. When shared tactfully and thoughtfully, redesigns can be a starting point for collaboration.

I redesigned this pamphlet for fun. (I guess you know you’re a civic design geek when redesigning a voter pamphlet is your idea of fun.) But since it became such a hit on social media, I’ve thought about trying to make it a reality. My first step might be to recreate the layout, originally in InDesign, in a program like MS Word, so that it can be easily used and edited by a government staffer.

Are there signs, posters, icons, websites, or pamphlets you encounter in your daily life you have a hard time understanding? Try redesigning them, you never know where it may lead.

Do you have any ideas for making ballot design or voter information guides better? Let me know on Twitter at @mollyampersand.

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