Go to HHH home page.
Election Academy
 


Not-So-Fine Print: Small Ballot Type Irritates New York Voters

Bookmark and Share

Nearsighted.jpg

[Image courtesy of eye-bar.ca]

Last Thursday, voters in New York's September 13 primary complained about the small type size on their ballots. According to the New York Times:

Voters who trekked to the polls for Thursday's primary races were handed ballots with candidates' names printed in an eye-straining 7-point type, akin to the ingredient list on the side of a cereal box.

Now the city Board of Elections is facing outsize criticism over the mite-size font. Civic groups and lawmakers are calling for reform. And some voters are wondering why the instructions on the ballot were displayed in larger and clearer typefaces than the names of the candidates and the offices they were running for.

"I just stood and squinted," recalled Elinore Kaplan, a semiretired teacher in Manhattan, who said she was upset and disappointed to have so much trouble ensuring she voted for the person she wanted to vote for.

"It shouldn't be a challenge," she said of the ballot's design. "It should be an invitation."

Sorry; that's actually the type size that was used in the ballots - so small that a dime looks large by comparison.

Let's try that again in a normal type size ... see if you don't feel the same way as the voters interviewed here:

Voters who trekked to the polls for Thursday's primary races were handed ballots with candidates' names printed in an eye-straining 7-point type, akin to the ingredient list on the side of a cereal box.

Now the city Board of Elections is facing outsize criticism over the mite-size font. Civic groups and lawmakers are calling for reform. And some voters are wondering why the instructions on the ballot were displayed in larger and clearer typefaces than the names of the candidates and the offices they were running for.

"I just stood and squinted," recalled Elinore Kaplan, a semiretired teacher in Manhattan, who said she was upset and disappointed to have so much trouble ensuring she voted for the person she wanted to vote for.

"It shouldn't be a challenge," she said of the ballot's design. "It should be an invitation."

It's tempting to chalk this up to yet another bad decision resulting in a big (or should I say really REALLY small) problem for the New York City Board of Elections, but in this case the culprit appears to be state laws that failed to keep pace as voting technology changed:

New York City's ballot aesthetic is determined by a team at the city Board of Elections, which is bound, according to a spokeswoman, by laws and regulations set by the state.

None of those rules mandate a specific font size to be used for candidates' names. But the law does insist on uniformity, which the city identified as the culprit for all the squinting.

According to the Board of Elections, ballots in a handful of city districts in Thursday's primary included so many different candidates and races that the font sizes were significantly reduced, so that the names could all fit onto a single page.

Because of the uniformity requirement, that smaller font was then used for names on all ballots, regardless of how many candidates ran in each individual district, the city said.

A spokeswoman for the Board of Elections said that magnifying sheets were available at polling places for any voters who had trouble reading the ballot, along with devices that read candidates' names aloud. But Brian Kavanagh, a state assemblyman who has sponsored legislation to change ballot design, said that New York was far behind other states in providing clear, legible options for its voters. He traced some of those problems to the recent shift from traditional lever machines to paper ballots.[emphasis added]

Adequate type size is important in ballots - not just for people (sadly, now including me) who struggle to see small type, but for all voters as a means of enhancing the usability of the voting process. Indeed, Tip #3 in Dana Chisnell's first Field Guide for Ensuring Voter Intent includes the instruction to "use big enough type" and suggests a minimum of 12-point for print.

The problem, of course, is that state laws written in the era of hand-counted paper ballots or mechanical lever machines incorporate a "design philosophy" that often forces election offices to do strange things lest they violate the law.

In some ways, New York's experiment in nano-democracy may have highlighted the need for reform in a way that a less-spectacularly confusing or hard-to-use ballot wouldn't have. New York has already demonstrated a willingness to catch up with the rest of the country on online voter registration; maybe this story will push Albany to do the same regarding readable and usable ballots.

If they don't, I suspect the Times and other papers will have no problem using much bigger type in their headlines.

[Hat tip to UMN's Shane Nackerud for teaching me how to render type that small on this blog - it's a power I will try to use for good and not for evil.]

Leave a comment


Humphrey School Sites
CSPG
Humphrey New Media Hub
Electionline.org