The Design of Voting

We can fly a man to the moon, but we can’t design an effective ballot. What gives?

It’s amazing to know that we, as American citizens, cast votes to elect our officials; however, it’s equally disappointing when your experience at the polls is nothing short of confusing.

Earlier today, I cast my vote at my local polling place. Having done this for several elections, a few things stuck out:

  • many voters didn’t know what precinct they lived in,
  • others were unfamiliar with the voting process, and, most importantly,
  • the ballot appeared to be designed by a third-grader.

And “designed” is used generously. Shouldn’t this be simpler?


Ballots should be designed for two things:

  • Legibility: Know your audience and assume that voters will have a difficult time reading small or light type. Typeface matters!
  • Ease-of-use: The last thing a voter should be when reading a ballot is confused. Keep the design as simple as possible while still communicating key information.

That’s it. A legible, easily understood ballot will make for a much better polling experience – which should be more a celebration than a frustrating nuisance!

How do we guarantee this result? A few design enhancements can go a long way.

Embrace space

First, we must separate key blocks of information. The federal election, state election, and local races and questions should all be given ample white space in between each other. Similarly, each candidate should be clearly marked and given air to breathe. Cramming several candidates into less space may save paper, but doesn’t provide clarity or a satisfying experience to the voting public.

Simple instructions

Work under the assumption that this will be everyone’s first vote. Perhaps the voting area of the ballot comes with a line of text reading, “Vote for one of the following candidates. If you vote for more than one, your vote will not count.”

For local elections (perhaps state representatives), ballots might read, “Vote for one of the following state representatives. State representatives work for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and represent districts across the state.”

This seems overly simple, but can help voters feel more confident about their voting responsibility.


My ballot used similarly-sized type for the entire document. There was no dominant element and all the information held similar weight.

Altering the headline size on a ballot can make a huge difference. Each section (federal, state, local) should have its own heading, all consistently sized. The next level of information (the candidates’ names) should have a smaller type treatment. Finally, supporting information like a candidate’s party, address or explanatory text for a question should have a tertiary treatment and size. The size and weight of type should work like a funnel or headline structure for a web page.

Civic importance

Just as it’s the responsibility of Americans to cast an educated vote, it’s just as important for local and state governing bodies to design a simpler voting process.

With so much cynicism and voter apathy surrounding voting, the experience must be made simpler and more enjoyable. Americans should feel empowered every election, not frustrated and pressured.

In short: save the ballot and save our elections!

Of Soviets and Starbucks

February 15th, 1990 was my father’s first day in America, and according to family-lore, the day he quit smoking. Two months ago I went home to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his arrival in the country. He made his way here during the waning years of the Soviet Union, leaving his home country of Ukraine for Austria and Italy, until he was finally granted permission to immigrate to the United States.

I’m always amazed at the admiration he has for this country, so in the spirit of his 25 year anniversary in the US, I asked my dad what word best represents his thoughts and emotions when thinking about America. In his noticeably Russian-accented English, he said, “inspirational.”

I was a bit struck after hearing that word. “Inspirational” is a nice soundbite, but more than anything it represents an abstract ideal. Don’t get me wrong—I know my dad meant it when he said it, and I admire him for it. But having come of age during one of the most polarizing periods in American politics, “inspirational” sounds like the hollow fluff you expect to hear from our politicians during election season.

Which brings me to my work in PR.


While interning at HB over the last few months, I’ve come to recognize that companies, particularly those catering to Millennials and consumers of technology, are increasingly promoting that abstract fluff over the reality on the ground. It’s the idea of the socially responsible but still profit-driven company adeptly navigating morality in the marketplace. Sometimes, the public will buy into a company’s social message. But the strategy isn’t foolproof. What starts out as a socially-conscious message could easily backfire. The recent PR debacle at Starbucks is a good example of this.

In March, the company implemented a new initiative, “Race Together,” where baristas would place stickers with those words on customers’ cups in hopes of jump starting a national conversation about race. In Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s head, this was a great idea, but it didn’t translate well with the American public, across the political divide of left and right. Starbucks was hammered by pundits and the average Joe for displaying poor judgement and naivete.

Uber, which promotes its societal contributions by stressing its outsized role in the sharing economy, was heavily criticized last November when Josh Mohrer, general manager of Uber New York, decided to a boastfully tell a journalist,“I was tracking you,” as she pulled up to their meeting. Uber’s privacy policy prohibits contract drivers from tracking customers, but it’s widely available to employees at the corporate level. The breach of privacy resulted in harsh criticism and damaged Uber’s reputation among the public and government officials.

If I were a betting man, I’d expect more such PR disasters to proliferate among companies that cater to Millennials and other tech-savvy and socially-conscious groups. This is not to say that running a business responsibly is impossible. But large companies like Starbucks and Uber will have a difficult time managing their image if they continue testing the waters with what Americans believe to be ethically and socially responsible.

My dad might never learn how to order an Uber or a tall, nonfat latte with caramel drizzle from Starbucks, but I know he’s always looking to buy from companies that do good and inspire. It’s up to companies to either live up to the missions they set, or get out of the business of morality.

It’s the responsible thing to do.

Does Content Marketing Need a Stronger Ethical Standard?

Chuck Todd

As NBC’s Chief Whitehouse Correspondent Chuck Todd has one of the highest profile positions in political journalism. Not only does he get access to power and a front seat to history, but he gets to bring those stories to one of the last major media organizations left standing.

And he gets to do it wearing that cool goatee.

Now Todd is under fire for comments he made to MSNBC’s Morning Joe (a perk of being in the NBC family is exposure on other NBC properties). When pressed about why the public seems to hear only the Republican side of the healthcare debate, even when that information isn’t necessarily true*, Todd replied: “What I always love is people say, ‘well, it’s you folks’ fault in the media.’ No, it’s the president of the United States’ fault for not selling it.

The anger from media pundits calls Todd out for not doing his job, though in this situation he is really a surrogate for the broader “media,” which is certainly not monolithic. Still, FAIR called Todd to task for not taking to heart the Society for Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics which states that reporters should “Seek Truth and Report it” as well as “test the accuracy of information from all sources.”

All that is fine and good in the abstract, but the reality is that even as the news cycle condenses and the “information age” requires more and more content, the number of people paid to be “journalists” has dropped. Whose job is it to tell a balanced story, or to poke holes in information shared with the public?

In Dissent Magazine, Robert Stuckman recently pointed out that journalism itself has become a stepping stone to other careers. In This Town, Mark Leibovich noted that 19 journalists joined the Obama administration in its first term. The Chicago Sun Times laid off its entire photography staff, relying instead on fewer people to do the same job, thereby equating “snapping a picture” with “journalistic photography.” I should note, the publication’s website still has a top-line menu item asking visitors to “Buy Photos.”

The math here is pretty simple. Fewer reporters + more content = vacuum.

This vacuum is being filled, increasingly, by PR people; this is why there are 3 PR people for every reporter. And let’s be honest here, we are inherently biased. Our obligation, according to PRSA’s Code of Ethics, is to our clients as well as the public, though that’s not an easy balance. The first tenant is Advocacy, which implies bias. “We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.”

In other words, we’re not here to provide unbiased information to the public, but to speak for our clients; and not to lie.

Now our attitudes need to change, because we need to fill the vacuum. All those extra PR people aren’t pitching those lonely reporters, though I’m sure it can sometimes feel that way – we are writing for our clients; we’re publishing on our own media outlets on platforms like Tumblr, YouTube, blogs or Facebook; we’re creating videos and infographics, and providing information.

The public will continue to change what it expects from us and we must deliver. We need to bring a true “journalistic” attitude to the content we create, which means not relying on a traditional PR code of ethics, but creating a new one that holds our clients, their industries and even the government accountable. Some attempts have been made at this, but more work is needed.

Somehow we need to find a balance between messaging, selling and informing. There’s a gap and confusion over who is responsible for providing unbiased information. Where does that responsibility lie?

* The FAIR story on the topic uses the word “misinformation” to categorize the Republican talking points. This word itself is a bit of an odd choice, since information should be seen as either factual or not. “Misinformation” implies a middle ground, where the voracity of a claim is suspect. It is, in itself, a word designed to not offend and therefore not inform.

Was it the Medium or the Message?

I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep anytime soon after Tuesday’s election results — everything is still sinking in. So let me see if I can get some thoughts down about the not so surprising surprise in Massachusetts while I’m still relatively cogent.

As I look back at the past few months, and read the very good analysis and insights of folks like David Meerman Scott and Mike Schneider and Mark McClennan, I’m starting to wonder if it was the medium — as seems to be the opinion rising from the social media echo chamber (not to cast any aspersions whatsoever on any of these very good posts) — or the message — as seems to be the prevailing opinion of the television and radio pundits.

Let’s focus on Twitter. The chart to the right (available on the Schwartz PR blog) shows the tremendous lead in twitter volume that Brown developed over the past week. It’s clear that Brown (and of course his supporters and campaigners) leveraged social media to a much greater benefit than Coakley. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Taking a look at their Twitter pages in particular tells us more than just how many followers they had. Oh, if you haven’t yet caught the stats (where have you been?), Brown left Coakley in the dust when it comes to Twitter followers. But, as I tell all my clients, it’s not about how many people are following you, but how well you engage with them. And it’s here where Scott Brown won hands down.

Here’s a screen shot from Brown’s Twitter page shortly after the election was called:

I’ll call your attention to a few things. First, look at the call to action in the background Twitter page image — three simple steps to Republican victory. Next, note the variety of Twitter posts: @ replies, re-tweets, use of hashtags (oh, and TweetDeck too). Finally, look at his bio: it’s another call to action.

Now let’s have a look at Coakley’s Twitter presence:

Not a bad looking Twitter page, mind you, but no messaging at all. No call to action in the bio or background image, just a few get the vote out requests in her tweets. While she uses hashtags, there’s no use of replies or retweets.

A similar pattern arises when we look at Facebook.

So the question remains: did Martha Coakley lose because she didn’t get social media, or because she didn’t get the message out? It’s a little bit of both, I think. Let’s not lose sight that we need to look beyond simple follower numbers before we come to any conclusions. When it came to social media, she forgot that it’s really all about engagement, not just eyeballs. Brown didn’t beat Coakley because he had more followers, he beat her because he was better at engaging his followers. He stayed on message, and he used social media to get that message out.

It’s not the medium or the message — it’s both! (And unfortunately for Coakley and Obama, her messages included (paraphrased) “I don’t care about Boston sports,” “I’m not really that much of a people person,” etc.)

Oh, and lest we forget our independent candidate, here’s a screen grab from his Facebook fan page that captures his campaign in a nutshell: