Saving the (Election) Day

By Dana Chisnell

I like to come to the rescue of people. Who doesn’t like to swoop in, change a couple of prompts, tweak a couple of things, and step away like a forms design hero? But we can’t always save the day — or the form.

On the afternoon in question, I got an email from a deputy chief of staff from the Ohio secretary of state’s office, Matt Masterson. Matt and I had known each other for some years by this point, and he wanted a favor.

In his email, he wrote that the Ohio legislature had just passed new laws about provisional ballots. He and his team needed to create a new form for poll workers to use to get voters to attest that they are who they say they are. Matt and his team had to do it in just a few weeks, ahead of the upcoming primary election. He sent along their draft and the statutory requirements.

Matt’s original form

Provisional voting is a fancy way of saying that someone has arrived at a polling place but there’s a question about whether they are eligible to vote. Usually, the problem is that they’re not in the voter rolls. But we still want them to be able to vote, so they get a special ballot that lists only federal and state contests. Because there is no way to be sure that this person can legally vote in this precinct, local contests are not included on provisional ballots.

Matt and his co-deputy, Matt Damschroder, had made a first pass at the form. It looked like you’d expect it to look: like a dog’s breakfast. These guys are some of the best public servants around, but neither of them will be using the word “designer” on their résumé any time soon. All the legal stuff was there, but the design was, shall we say, unintentionally awful. They knew it but they weren’t sure what to do about it.

“Would you have a look at it for us, please?”

It is not uncommon for me to get requests like this. People send me ballots, forms and manuals to review and comment on every month or so. I do it, almost always for free. Why? Because I can, because it needs doing, and because I like being a hero (as I mentioned above). But mostly, I do it because they ask.

Matt’s revised form

This time, I didn’t have the time to take the thing apart and do the job it deserved. I wrote back a few days later. I tried to cast my unavailability as empowering them: They should go have a look at a few other, related forms that my team had recently redesigned and tested. They probably wanted to look at a set of best practices for ballot design that they both knew about. And they should follow the guidelines in the Field Guides To Ensuring Voter Intent. Then I went back to working on the grant proposal or report or whatever it was that was preventing me from reworking the Ohio form myself.

Forty-eight hours later, they sent another version. The transformation was nothing short of amazing. They had done it by themselves in Microsoft Word, using some simple guidance and borrowing from other designs.

The only thing more satisfying than being a hero is making heroes out of other people.

Dana ChisnellDana Chisnell is an elections geek and UX research nerd who loves giving design literacy to the world. She’s the editor of the Field Guides To Ensuring Voter Intent and co- director of the Center for Civic Design. @danachis