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!

Reaching into the Political Machine – A Powerful Visit to DC with The Alliance

Each year my visit to DC with The Alliance for Business Leadership turns into the single most impactful event I participate in. I invariably come away with a sense that the individual can impact government and as business leaders, we are duty-bound to participate.

A moment with John Kerry at The Alliance for Business Leadership (DC Photographer Marty Katz)

This year’s top thoughts:

  • I’m humbled by The Alliance’s membership — not the C-level titles, but the brain power, thoughtfulness, deep understanding of the issues and commitment to partner with government to ensure that business can do well and do good at the same time.
  • I left surprised by the focus, expertise and passion that government workers bring to the table:
  • Todd Park, co-founder of AthenaHealth, former CTO of Health and Human Services (HHS) and current CTO for the whole government, mesmerized a room-full of CEOs with his entrepreneurial spirit and tales of bringing government resources into the hands of existing and new businesses. [Read more…]

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: