May 2011 Articles

Getting Out the Vote

Three alumnae share a passion for enabling every citizen to participate in the fundamental process of democracy.

By Dorothy E. Wright

It seemed like a good idea: make the type on the 2000 presidential ballot bigger so that it would be easier to read for older voters in Palm Beach, Florida. However, that well-intentioned tinkering created a little election monster—the “butterfly ballot,” on which candidates’ names were misaligned with the corresponding punch-holes.

In the wake of the election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which established the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and created a program to replace punchcard voting systems. The goal was to design user-friendly ballots and voting systems that would be accessible, private, accurate, and transparent.

Among those who developed recommendations were Janice (Ginny) Redish ’63, Whitney Quesenbery ’76, and Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall ’94.

Plain language matters

“User-centered design is putting users in the center of your thinking as you design—and involving them by trying out what you have created with a few users,” observes Redish, president of Redish & Associates, Bethesda, Maryland, an independent consultant on user-centered websites and software. In Florida, she says, the failure to test the usability of the ballot was at “the heart of the problem.”

A linguist and early proponent of “plain language” in technical, legal, and government communication, Redish was hired by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to conduct a study of ballot instructions and develop guidelines on ballot design and voting system standards.

As Redish frames her fundamental research question, “Does plain language make a difference?”

Short answer: You bet.

Redish and her colleagues tested two electronic ballots with a sample of voters around the country. One ballot used traditional language, for example, “State Supreme Court Chief Justice. Shall Robert Demergue be retained?” The other used plain language: “Keep Esther York as State Supreme Court Justice?” The plain-language ballot did much better. Most participants not only voted more accurately on the plain-language ballot, they also preferred it.

Understand and operate

Meanwhile, an EAC subcommittee was wrestling with technical guidelines for human factors, such as disabilities, and privacy in voting systems. The subcommittee was chaired by Quesenbery, who was mentored by Redish; she offers independent consulting services as WQusability, High Bridge, New Jersey.

“We had a clear mandate for accessibility and usability,” says Quesenbery. “We started out with 10 basic principles, including universal design, meaning that voting is accessible to the broadest range of people possible.”

That worthy goal creates a clash. “The civil rights philosophy embodied in the disabilities movement clashes with the mathematical certainties of computer processing,” Quesenbery explains. “When a political advocate says, ‘all people shall be able to …’ they mean that in a rhetorical sense. When a mathematician says, ‘all people …’ they mean that in a pure mathematical sense.”

That comes down to fundamental civil-rights questions, Quesenbery says: “To what extent can we, and are we willing to, make our political processes transparent and available to every citizen? When is it acceptable for that citizen to be assisted in their work of participating in our government?”

Moreover, voting is complex, requiring privacy, independence, and accuracy, as well as the ability to count and recount ballots.

“All of the solutions to elections that we see today minimize or ignore one of those requirements,” Quesenbery says. “Black-box systems minimize the transparency needed for accurate elections; paper minimizes accessibility with independence and privacy.”

While this design conflict is still not resolved, the subcommittee recommended basic human performance guidelines. “People should be able to perceive the information, operate the system, and understand it,” Quesenbery says.

Designed for democracy

After the 2000 ballot fiasco, AIGA, a professional design association, worked for over five years to develop design templates and guidelines for ballots and polling places under a broader initiative, Design for Democracy.

Anthropologist Tunstall, who was working for an IT consulting company on the human experience of technology, led the company’s pro bono research into voters’ experience with the election process, including ballots, that AIGA eventually used as a basis for its improved designs and guidelines. “The great thing about using the user-centered design process is that people will tell you what the issues are,” she says.

Tunstall went on to develop the strategies that helped AIGA test solutions for election commissions in Illinois, Oregon, and Nebraska. Similarly, the Usability Professionals Association’s Voting and Usability Project, which Quesenbery started and where Redish is active, has worked with election commissions in several states, including California, Florida, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, and Ohio. “The challenge is now one of implementation,” Tunstall observes. “There are 3,000-plus counties that decide which ballots they are going to use; it’s difficult to go to each one of them and say use the national ballot standards. In a lot of places they are being used, but not universally.”

Now an associate professor of design anthropology and associate dean for learning and teaching at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia, Tunstall combines her academic interests with civic involvement. “Design translates human values into tangible experience,” she explains. “My work has to do with how the value of democracy is made tangible to people.”

As leader of the U.S. Design Policy Initiative, Tunstall is advocating for “a governmental plan of action to support design in service of U.S. economic competitiveness and democratic governance.”

Influencing policy

Redish and Quesenbery are also involved in projects with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, a nonpartisan public policy and law institute working on issues of democracy and justice, including voting rights and elections.

Beyond civil rights, voting systems, and ballots, how will social media affect the process?

“Social media are here to stay and they are very definitely pushing the envelope of web content as conversation,” Redish says.

Social media can also address the accessibility issue and help get out the vote. As Redish says: “People tweeting about locations of polling places, for example, or posting a YouTube video of some impossible voting place? That can really influence policy.”


AIGA Design for Democracy’s top 10 election design guidelines are derived from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission report on ballot and polling place design guidelines. At right is an example of a redesigned paper ballot and below, a redesigned electronic ballot.

Bryn Mawr alumnae and others who have been inspired by Ginny Redish ’63 are hosting a birthday party and symposium to honor her on July 9 at the Washington Conference Center in Baltimore. Look for informal coverage and photos in a future issue.

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