Designing Your Vote

Posted inInformation Design
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Image: The New York Times

I know all you Imprint readers are hawkeyed visual people. I trust you are equally politically attuned, no matter your party affiliation. And in this age of the 24-hour media cycle, who needs reminding that it is an election year, what with the deafening, partisan echo chambers of talking points, stump speeches, and gaffes? But those of you who don’t live in New York City might not know that the first graphic design–related controversy of the season has come to the fore, in the shape of a seven-point font that was, according to The New York Times, “akin to the ingredient list on the side of a cereal box.”

Last Thursday, primaries were held in certain districts across the five boroughs, and while victors emerged, so did complaints about the difficulty of reading the names of the candidates. Board of Elections officials blamed the number of candidates running in some of the races, as well as the restrictive state laws that apply to how names appear on the ballot. According to the Times, “None of those rules mandate a specific font size to be used for candidates’ names. But the law does insist on uniformity, which the city identified as the culprit for all the squinting.” James Montalbano of the Brooklyn-based Terminal Design is quoted as saying, “Wow, that’s tiny. . . . Those names could be 40 percent larger and still fit,” after seeing the ballot.

In New York, the design-related faults of the ballot are hardly news. State assemblyman Brian Kavanagh got bill no. A07492, the Voter Friendly Ballot Act, passed this year, which, according to the bill’s language, is “an act to amend the election law, in relation to enacting the voter friendly ballot act of 2012.” In a memo included with the bill, the justification for this overhaul to the state’s voting laws as they apply to ballots reads as follows:

A ballot that is clear and simple to read makes voting easier and leads to more accurate voting. . . . The Voter Friendly Ballot Act will provide a remedy for New York’s hard to read ballot by setting forth specifications that will create a ballot layout that is straightforward. At the same time it provides Boards of Election with the flexibility to ensure good ballot design, regardless of the particular limits of their voting technology, or the number of contests and candidates that must be placed on the ballot in any particular election.

Of course, the idea that design clarity leads to accuracy is applicable to the design and typography of anything. Unfortunately, it probably won’t surprise anyone that a bill that had been passed has yet to be implemented, resulting in this brouhaha.

Image: Wikipedia

It reminds me of 2003, when I lived, and voted, in California. That was the year of the infamous special election recall vote of then governor Gray Davis. You remember the one, right? It led to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger emerging from a field of 135 candidates that included “Actor” Gary Coleman, “Entertainer” Angelyne, “Adult Film Actress” Mary “Mary Carey” Cook, and “Author/Columnist/Mother” Arianna Huffington. Somewhere, I still have the sample ballot the state sent to all registered voters. Talk about a hard-to-read ballot, which wasn’t helped by the erratic alphabetization.

New York probably won’t ever find itself facing such an eclectic gubernatorial field, but hopefully it will get its act together when it comes to how it presents candidates, in the name of preserving democracy rather than chipping away at it.


For a primer on type design, see Alex W. White’s Thinking in Type: The Practical Philosophy of Typography.