Monday, March 28, 2011

Top 10 Ballot Design Tips from AIGA/Design for Democracy

As someone who loves Top 10 lists and also cares deeply about ballot design, I was delighted to find this recent blog post by Dana Chisnell highlighting the Top 10 Ballot Design Principles to ensure usability and accessibility, generated through AIGA's Design for Democracy project.

Among the top ten principles -- avoid centered text; use clear, simple language; use contrast and color functionally; and decide what's most important.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dana over recently at the Election Verification Network conference where she and her design colleagues gave an excellent presentation about the importance of good ballot design (slides are available on her blog for downloading).

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Chicago conference for better elections

I've spent the past two days in Chicago at the Election Verification Network conference, where I delivered remarks this morning about the the need to modernize voter registration in California and shared the "sneak peak" findings of our nationwide state election website assessment project for the Pew Center on the States in collaboration with the Center for Governmental Studies.

It's been fantastic to be here in Chicago with all these folks - computer scientists, statisticians, election officials, activists, academics - to discuss the latest challenges and opportunities in election technology and verification.  It's been kind of sentimental too, as I organized the very first convening of this group, also held in Chicago, back in April 2004.  Then, about 26 people participated; now the Election Verification Network (EVN) conference has expanded to close to 100 folks.

One of the highlights of the conference was Reverend Jesse Jackson's address Friday morning, where he described our work advancing election verification as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that he pushed for and is still being fought for in many ways today.  One of the topics he addressed was the impact that "states' rights" laws have on voting rights nationwide and how difficult it is to give voters any guarantee that their voting rights are protected in every state.

At these election conferences lately I am often left wondering why it is that the federal and state governments don't pay counties for the costs of putting on state and federal elections? If they did then those dollars could come with strings attached that would give voters some guarantee of certain rights and expectations of voting system performance.  There'd be plenty of money to pay for more training and pollworkers and voting centers where people could register on election day and get their registration records updated.

The voting transaction is one of the rare times a person interfaces with the government as a voter and instead of making the most of the opportunity we let people fall through the cracks because we have an antiquated, 19th century system being operated out of people's garages.

Fortunately there are lots of concerned, thoughtful people around this country who care about elections and are putting their minds and hearts to the task of making elections work more effectively (and yes, even in this environment of scarce resources, that's possible to do). It's been a privilege to spend time in their company here in Chicago.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

SF instant runoff voting poll finds voters remain confused on the details

A new poll commissioned by San Francisco's Chamber of Commerce found that a majority of San Francisco voters don't understand how their instant runoff voting process works.  Excerpts from today's San Francisco Chronicle article by John Coté are featured below.
Despite ranked-choice voting being introduced for Board of Supervisors races in 2004 and used in every city election since, 55 percent of respondents to a recent poll commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce said they didn't know whether their vote counted once their first, second- or third-choice candidate had been eliminated.
In that scenario, their vote would not affect the outcome of the race, although 29 percent of respondents thought that their vote would be counted. Only 15 percent of the respondents said that their vote would not be counted, according to the poll, which was conducted by David Binder Research and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
"It's clear that San Francisco voters understand ranked-choice voting about as well as they understand quantum physics," said Nathan Ballard, a Democratic strategist who was a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom when he was mayor.
"It's cloaked in mystery to the degree that most voters find it indecipherable, and will have no idea of the impact of their votes on election day," Ballard said.
Steven Hill, a consultant who helped draft ranked-choice voting systems for San Francisco and Oakland, said the poll, which surveyed 500 registered voters in the city from Feb. 16 to 20, was inconclusive. He also said the poll's questions were skewed to elicit responses unfavorable to ranked-choice voting to lay the groundwork for a repeal of the system.
"Most people don't understand how your car works, or how your computer works or how your phone works," Hill said. "But they know how to use it, and they're comfortable with it."
Also weighing in on the poll is SF Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius, who speculates that San Francisco may be headed for a "ballot box train wreck" this year in the first open-seat contest for mayor since instant runoff voting was enacted.  He writes:
While confusing, the system has stuck so far and it will almost certainly take a ballot box meltdown to galvanize voters - a crazy, unexpected outcome that leaves voters feeling bewildered and disenfranchised. If that's what you want, the good news is all the factors - huge unwieldy field, no clear favorite, and lots of recognizable names with strong core support - are in place for that to happen.
The Oakland mayoral election used ranked-choice voting and Jean Quan defeated former state Sen. Don Perata even though Perata had more first-place votes. The last District 10 supervisor's race, in which it took more than 20 rounds to award the seat to Malia Cohen, who was back in the pack when the counting started, seemed odd.
But November's election for a new mayor could be a much bigger deal.
"It's going to be District 10 on steroids," said political analyst David Latterman, who is advising mayoral candidate David Chiu. "There were really only three candidates in Oakland. This will be a race of several major candidates, maybe as many as 20, and at least 10 are legit contenders."
A landslide of candidates may be the new winning metric for ranked-choice voting. Candidates round up as many choices as possible, build coalitions, and then gang up against the front runners.
"I'm not sure I would want to be in first place going into the election," said political consultant Mark Mosher, who is working with candidate Dennis Herrera. "You're going to get absolutely shelled."

Pew study looks at costs of mailing California voter information guides

A new study commissioned by the Pew Center on the States takes a look at how much money California counties spend on mailing ballot guides to voters and the amount of money counties could save if some voters received these guide electronically instead of through the mail. "The Cost of Delivering Voter Information: A Case Study of California" is a research brief based on a more in-depth publication called "Mailbox, Inbox, Ballot Box; Delivering Information to California Voters in the 21st Century" by Lauren Hengl of the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.

Some key findings:
  • California counties spent 11 to 46 percent of their total election costs mailing paper sample ballots in the 2008 general election. Los Angeles, the state’s largest county, spent nearly $6 million on this mailing alone. 
  • By disseminating voter information through e-mail or the Web, counties could save up to nine percent of their election expenses if a portion of their voters agreed to cancel paper mailings.
  • San Francisco County could save more than $197,000, or two percent of its total election costs, if 15 percent of voters received only electronic mailings.
  •  Los Angeles County could save an estimated $1.19 million if 20 percent of its voters opted out of paper information.
  • Counties could see further savings if they also mailed one copy of voting information to each registered household—instead of sending individual copies to multiple voters even if they live in one home.
Another way California government could save money is if the ballot guides produced and mailed by the state and by counties could be consolidated into one guide.  Administratively that might be difficult to pull off, but it would sure be a lot less confusing to voters, who are often stumped as to why they receive two different ballot guides, one from the Secretary of State and another from their county election office.

Kudos to CA Clean Money Campaign, LWV and CCC for L.A. victory

Results from Tuesday's Los Angeles election shows Measure H, a political reform measure backed by the California Clean Money Campaign, California Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, passed by a wide margin, with early results showing 75 percent of voters supporting the measure and 25 percent opposing it.

The measure has two key provisions.  The first prevents bidders on city contracts from campaigning for or making donations to the politicians who will decide on those contracts.  The second provision affects the City of Los Angeles' public financing program for political campaigns by lifting the cap on the city's public matching fund.  Public financing proponents hope this will open up opportunities for candidates to be entirely publicly financed in the future.  Supporters of public financing who were disappointed by recent ballot box defeats of statewide propositions will be cheered by this latest victory in Los Angeles.