Two weeks ago, America went to the polls to determine the future of our nation. Several New York voters found their attention distracted as they proudly circled in their choices for the leaders of the free world. It was not the latest polls, nor campaign commercials, nor celebrity endorsements that caused them to take a second look at the ballot, but rather a simple question: what was that font about? The ballot featured several different fonts throughout the page, with the candidates’ names presented in a condensed all-caps font.
The subject of ballot design and font choice has been a hot topic for quite some time, spawning several controversies and motivating advocacy groups to help solve the problems presented by ballot design. The Brennan Center has stated that they believe that problems with ballot design and instructions have caused the loss or miscalculation of hundreds of thousands of votes in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. From misaligned bubbles to nearly illegible typefaces, poor design has confused hoards of voters into voting for the wrong candidate or voting incorrectly, invaliding their ballots.
In Toledo, the lettering on a proposed tax levy was called into question because several citizens, including a local Tea Party activist, complained that enlarged and bold font in the middle of the proposal would unduly impact voters to vote for the levy.
|It’s an EMERGENCY! So of course you will vote “yes.”|
This ballot from Hamilton County illustrates a problem with arrow voting. You’re supposed to fill in the arrow next to the person you are voting for. Or something. Seriously, this ballot is enough to make you give up on design, and voting, and democracy.
|I don’t even know.|
And in the Center’s very own New York City, primary voters in Manhattan and Brooklyn were outraged at the use of 7 point font, which elderly and visually impaired voters claimed rendered the ballots illegible. This is obviously an even bigger issue, given that elderly people are basically the only people who voted in the primaries anyway. Fortunately the people rose up, and measures were adopted to ensure that the general election ballot would be printed in type no smaller than 9 point. Power to the old people. Here is a photo of the primary ballot with a dime placed on top of it for scale.
|It’s so cute! But, unfortunately, cuteness is not a desirable attribute of ballot typefaces.|
At the crux of the issue is the fact that ballots are not designed by typographers or designers, but by election committees, whose members are not necessarily, or even likely, well-versed in these matters. It was a Palm Beach election official, Theresa LePore, who designed the infamous “butterfly ballot” that caused Floridian citizens who intended to vote for Gore to accidently cast votes for Pat Buchanan in 2000. After the election, she faced several lawsuits and said that her life had been made “hell” by all of the negative attention.
Several groups have taken steps to attempt to fix the problem through legislation and guidelines to govern the ballot design process. Organizations including the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the Brookings Institution, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology have all issued lists of instructions that include directives such as using sans-serif typefaces, maintaining legible font sizes, and using typefaces with true lower case letters (not in effect on the New York City ballot. See above).
So take a class at the Center for Book Arts and, along with learning how to create works of art and a variety of books and printed materials, you will begin learning the information you need to help advise any election officials in your life, or to protest irrational, confusing, and aesthetically unpleasing future ballots. And in the meantime, let me know if you figure out which typeface was on the New York ballot I filled out. It will give me peace of mind and help save democracy.
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