Is democracy a design problem?

February 5, 2020 2:10 pm

Is democracy a design problem?

Polling station sign. Source: Sky News:

The 2020 US Presidential race is well underway, with Democrat candidates fighting it out in the primaries  and Trump rallying his supporters across the country, November is fast approaching. This article will not be endorsing any party, candidates or policies. Instead it will be looking at elections through the prism of UX; how important is design in playing a part in elections? Can the 2020 US Election learn from the mistakes of the past?

2000 US Presidential Election: One of the most controversial elections in recent western history between George Bush Jr and Al Gore.

The famous Florida recount gave Bush the presidency, but 20 years on the controversy remains.  This election is of particular interest from a UX perspective, as there were major design errors that could have impacted the result. The ‘Butterfly ballot’ below shows that voters had to punch in their candidate selection but it was difficult to understand which hole related to which candidate, meaning people voted for the wrong candidate.

It comes as no surprise that many argue the presidency was won and lost on bad design.

The controversy of the 2000 election did not end there; it is estimated that between 4-6 million votes were uncounted in the election. User errors such as not punching the card correctly were partly blamed for the uncounted votes , as machines failed to read the ballots correctly. 

UX design principle: consistency.

In the US,  ballot papers and the method in which you cast your vote will be vastly different from one district to another. There is a desperate need to have consistency across the board, this will not only help voters each time they go to the polling station for different elections, but also for the people (and the machines) counting the votes to ensure they are accurate.

Adding unnecessarily barriers to voting will only increase voter distrust and disdain with political engagement. The ‘butterfly ballot’ used in Palm Beach Florida shows us just how much bad design can have an enormous impact. The Palm Beach Post estimates that around 2,800 voters accidentally punched in their vote for Pat Buchanan when they intended to vote for Al Gore.  However, Bush was declared the winner of the State of Florida, and thus won the presidency, based on a margin of 537 votes in Florida.

Left: ‘Butterfly ballot’ paper. Right: Same image annotated, demonstrating where people voted for Al Gore, and where they were supposed to vote for Al Gore. Source:

UX design principle: Intuitiveness.

Ensuring free and fair elections is a key function of any democratic nation. Guaranteeing every voter can arrive at the ballot box and clearly understand how to cast their vote is essential for a democratic election.

What happens when a ballot paper does not make it clear how to cast your vote?

In 2018 the state of Florida was once again put in the spotlight for its poor electoral process. As seen below, the Senate race was put at the bottom of the ballot box, underneath the lengthy instructions. This resulted in an unusually high rate of 9% of voters leaving the vote blank. With just over 10,000 votes between the Democrat and Republican candidates and 9% (over 700,000) voters leaving the section of the ballot blank, the result could have been very different. 

Not just a US problem… 2007 Scottish Parliament Election: 100,000 votes were rejected due to user error

 Confusion arose when voters were asked to cast their vote on a single ballot for the regional list and another for their constituency. Further confusion was added when another separate ballot paper was introduced for the local authority elections. This used a different voting system meaning voters had to rank the candidates in numerical order rather than a cross. Estimates show that ‘about two-thirds of the papers on the regional list were rejected because they were unmarked or otherwise unclear’. 

After this electoral disaster, the Electoral Commission produced a research report titled ‘Ballot Paper Usability Testing.’  The research explored  factors that may impact users understanding. This included; the ballot paper, polling station instructions, booth instructions, postal voting, party descriptions, and understanding the voting system used in each election. The executive summary about ballot papers can be viewed below.  Some of the recommendations have been implemented, however  more can be done to improve our electoral process. 

When design meets government

American organisation Centre for Civic Design argue that voter apathy is not to blame for a low  turn-out, but rather it is the system that makes it hard for people to firstly register, then to vote. The Centre for Civic Design believes that the election process places too many burdens on voters. ‘Across all of our projects, our research suggests that the voter journey—all of the information, decisions, interactions that get a voter from an intention to vote to actually casting a ballot—is a story of seemingly small barriers that can add up to a vote not cast.’ They argue that design principles can aid election officials in improving the relationship between citizens and government to ensure interactions are a smooth, efficient and enjoyable process.

The message is simple, through usability knowledge, research skills and design knowhow, elections can be a straightforward process that will encourage participation.

 Whilst there are a host of historic, economic and social factors that influence voter turn-out, it is important to explore how something as simple as design is overlooked in the process. Small steps could make a massive difference. 

Centre for  Civic Design has a range of field guides available on their website to help election officials. Simple changes such as avoiding uppercase letters, opting for left-aligned type over centred type, using clear, simple language and using accurate instructional illustrations will go a long way in ensuring people are fully aware of who they are voting for on election day.

Final thoughts…

When it comes to elections, design is not the first thing that springs to mind for most. What we hoped to do here, is highlight the need to implement UX principles in the electoral process. We have demonstrated the significance that bad design can have on elections and how vital it is that usability is considered before voters go to the ballot. Not only this, but by implementing UX principles in the electoral process, it could go a long way in encouraging participation in politics.