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There is No Small Stuff (cont.): Chisnell on Allen County, Ohio Ballot Design

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[Image courtesy of familysearch]

I've written at length here on the blog about the importance of good ballot design - a subject I've come to know and appreciate thanks to the work of the amazingly talented Dana Chisnell. The other day, Dana shared a story on her CivicDesigning blog about Allen County (Lima), Ohio's effort to do good work inside in the chaos that is an election year. It's a compelling story and one that's too good not to share.

Though most of us see ballots for the first time on Election Day, county election officials in many states started laying out ballots in August. This might seem like plenty of lead time in getting ready for November 6. But election officials throughout the US are required to make ballots available to military and overseas citizens 45 days before Election Day — for this election, the magic date was September 22.

Still, it seems like a month would be enough to lay out a form that includes standard instructions, between 12 and 30 contests for public offices, and a few state ballot questions. Add in proofing, testing for system logic and accuracy (to ensure that the ballots are counted properly by the tabulation systems), and translating to required languages in addition to English, and pretty soon, it doesn't like much time at all.

Deadlines are something designers deal with all the time. But we rarely encounter changes to design due to lawsuits. Lawsuits that change content. Specifically, that change the length of copy.

Ken Terry, election director in Allen County, Ohio, wrote to me about his adventures in design decisions for this November's ballot, and how the design challenges shifted with changes in ballot language for Ohio's Issue 2. Issue 2 is a ballot measure, which, if approved by Ohio voters, would put decisions about election district boundaries in the hands of a citizen panel. Right now, district lines are drawn by a board of elected officials at various levels of state government.

To give you a bit of perspective about the decisions that go into creating a ballot, here's a recipe:

  • + Paper size: 14 inches, 17 inches, or 19 inches.
  • + "High speed" optical scanners, that work best with the smallest size of ballots.
  • + 28,000 anticipated ballots that have been folded because absentee voters voted them ahead of Election Day. These take more effort to count than ballots voted in the polling place because they have to be fed through the scanners manually.
  • + 27,000 ballots voted in polling places on Election Day.

And here's a timeline.

August 29. The ballot programmer sets up the ballot for the first time. All the known content fits on two sides of a 14-inch ballot for all but 4 precincts in the county. Ken orders 10,000 14-inch blank ballots for in-person absentee voting. He asks his printer to prepare an order for 20,000 more 14-inch ballots for September 14.

September 12. The Ohio Supreme Court rules that the description of Issue 2 for the ballot must be rewritten and re-certified.

September 13. In the evening, the new ballot language is available. If the language is longer, Ken's staff lays out the ballot again and they have a big decision to make. Should they go to two 14-inch ballot sheets or use one 17-inch ballot sheet. They have to consider the trade-offs of minimizing the number of ballot sheets against how much longer it will take to get results when processing large numbers of absentee ballots that have been folded (making it slower to get them through the scanners) and that the scanners work better with the smaller paper.

Here's a classic conflict between what's best for the user and what's best for operations. Will anything they're doing to the revised ballot layout make the ballot less usable for voters, while making it as efficient as possible for counting?

This is a tough moment. The 14-inch absentee ballots that have already been printed are now no good. They'll have to be destroyed. The budgeted amount for those ballots has been spent. But they must be replaced.

It turns out that the new language for Issue 2 is twice as long as the old language. This means that all precincts in the county now have at least two ballot sheets, both of which are printed with contests and issues on both sides.

September 14. Ballots go to press, having been proofed, translated, and checked for accuracy.

And now for a moment of irony: The people who brought the suit to have the ballot language for Issue 2 rewritten are now concerned that the new version is too long.

September 22. Military and overseas ballots are available.

And so, the voting begins, 45 days before Election Day. A ballot seems like a straightforward form, with known inputs and known deadlines, created and tested in a practiced process, by smart, professional election administrators. Then comes something unpredictable. For Ken, it was a lawsuit. But in another county in another state, a candidate was removed from the running too late to be removed from the ballot. Elsewhere, a whole ballot measure was dropped after early voting started. And election officials still manage to conduct free, fair, and secure elections. Every election is a miracle.

(emphasis added)

That last line is an exaggeration, of course; the fact that elections work as well as they do is a testament to hard work and dedication as much as it is a miracle. Still, given all the things that can (and do) go wrong in the run-up to Election Day, you can't fault election administrators if they look for a little extra help.

Thanks to Allen County's Ken Terry for sharing his story with Dana and to Dana sharing it with the world - or at least the election geekiest parts of it!

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