Whitney Quesenbery knows a well-designed ballot when she sees it: lower-case letters, left-aligned text, a clean sans-serif font. Quesenbery has been assessing ballot design for nearly two decades. Los Angeles County’s is one of the best she has seen. “Look at those instructions,” she says, admiring the ballot’s simple wording and standout color. “They’re beautiful.” A co-founder of the Center for Civic Design, Quesenbery regularly advises election boards on best practices for their ballots. Some places, like Los Angeles, have incorporated the design principles espoused by the center. But, Quesenbery says, many other counties are stuck using ballots that look as if they came out of the last century. “There are still people voting on pre-2000 voting systems,” she says. “I do.”
Quesenbery is registered in Hunterdon County, N.J., which she says uses electronic voting machines over 2 decades old. Vintage machines mean vintage ballot styles. She says her ballot is wider than her two outstretched arms.
New York’s election boards are similarly constrained by old technology and even older election code. The state’s rules on ballot design are some of the most stringent in the country.
Quesenbery examines a ballot from Chenango County, N.Y., which has a typical layout for the state. There are illustrated index fingers pointing toward each candidate. Beneath the fingers are tiny emblems representing each party — a star for Democrats, an eagle for Republicans, a peace sign for the Green Party. And, at the bottom of the page sit the instructions, directing voters to “mark only with a writing instrument provided by the Board of Elections.”