Voting news: No more microscopic type on New York City ballots

Click the image to see the ballot in its actual size.

They may not have needed photo ID to cast their ballots, but in the 2013 city election, New York City voters would have done well to bring along high-powered magnifying lenses. That’s because, in some precincts in New York City, the names of candidates were printed in tiny, 6-point type. [I would have liked to include a paragraph, here, written in 6-point type, but my blog format doesn’t allow me to go smaller than 8 point. What does that tell you?

Here’s what the actual six-point ballot looked like in November 2013:

Why would an election board print its ballots with such minuscule type? The New York Daily News explains:

The [New York City] Election Board took a beating over the eye-straining six-point typeface on last year’s general election ballots from a legion of elected officials and watchdog groups who said the print was preposterously small.

The 2013 problem arose because of the number of languages — as many as five in some pockets of Queens — into which the ballots had to be translated.

Now the Board will do what some say it could well have done last year: Print no more than three languages on any single ballot, which will boost the type size to 10 points.

The agency insisted it had no choice but to microsize the print citywide last year because providing ballots with varying type sizes might trigger accusations of discrimination and possibly lawsuits.

New York City has 5,369 election districts, according to the Board.

Of those, just 194 — all located in polyglot Queens — have enough qualifying voters to require ballots in four languages.

And in only 79 districts — also all in Queens — must the Board provide ballots in all five languages it offers: English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Bengali.

In those 79 spots, pollsites will be equipped with three sets of ballots, each printed in English and Spanish plus one of the other three Asian languages.

Xenophobes and English-only zealots would probably argue that it would be a lot simpler if ballots were printed only in English, and that, if you want to vote, you should be able to read “our” language. Those arguments may have some merit–but it’s no longer a matter of preference.

According to the New York Times, Section 203 of the federal Voting Rights Act

…requires ballots, forms, pamphlets and signs to be translated wherever 5 percent of the local population — or more than 10,000 voting-age citizens — speak the same native language and have limited proficiency in English.

As of the 2010 census, states with new populations covered by the law are Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Washington.

A positive side effect of multi-language ballots is that they are a powerful signal of inclusiveness, and they encourage political participation by newer Americans.

“It is often a source of community pride and a signal that it is a large enough group for political mobilization,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at the University of California, Riverside, who directs a national survey of Asian-American voters.

So, it’s nice to know that the New York City Board of Elections is trying to ameliorate the tiny-type situation. They’re increasing the type size to 10 points. That’s still rather small for us older folks. But it’s a sign that the Board wants to encourage voters, not turn them away–as has been the trend in too many other political jurisdictions.