In the 2008 Minnesota election for US Senate, Al Franken beat Norm Coleman by less than three hundred votes. In that race, almost four thousand absentee ballots were not counted because votes didn’t sign the envelope, as required. The problem was a flaw in the design of the envelope. Voters didn’t notice the signature line, an innocent mistake that ultimately disenfranchised them. That screw-up prompted the Minnesota secretary of state’s office to redesign the absentee mail-in envelope to include an outsized X to prominently indicate where voters needed to sign. In the 2010 election, the missing-signature total dropped to 837.
The way your ballot looks influences how you vote. Anyone who paid attention to the 2000 presidential election will remember how “butterfly ballots” in Palm Beach County, Florida, confused thousands of voters, who may have voted for Patrick Buchanan rather than Al Gore, because the layout of the ballot was ambiguous. More recently, in the 2018 senate election in Florida, thousands of voters didn’t mark their ballots for that contest, because it appeared at the bottom of a long column of instructions—a column that many voters skipped. Election officials calculate that more than 30,000 votes may have been lost because of that design error. The winner of the Senate race, Rick Scott, won by less than 10,000 votes. No one will ever know if that margin of victory was attributable to the missing votes.
In 2020, as American politicians, election scholars and administrators try to figure out how conduct elections in a pandemic—and increasingly by mail—ballot design is going to be a critical factor in getting it right.
The Washington Post recently posted this very informative, four-minute video on this subject. Watch it here.