People usually don’t care much about documents until they become a problem. And there is a big problem with the butterfly ballots in Florida. It was apparent to me the moment I saw the ballot on
In my experience as a document professional, one truism is evident. The way people fill out forms is habitual. We tend to do things the way we’ve done them before over and over again. It’s as
easy as A-B-C and as simple as 1-2-3. You fill in your name, check the box, and sign at the bottom.
The critical mistake that the ballot designers made in Florida was to move away from this habitual human pattern. Document professionals understand this inherent psychology of the document. Trouble
is, the folks supervising elections for Palm Beach County are politicians, not document design professionals. By putting candidate “number two” on the right and candidate “number three” where
candidate number two should be, the Florida election politicos upset the natural form-filling flow.
As a result, voters became confused and either voted twice or punched the chad for the wrong guy. And now we have furious throngs of Floridians complaining that they voted in error. Ballot
designers failed to consider that voters would simply skim the ballot and mark their choice without really reading the document. My bet is that most people did not pay attention to the little
arrows and didn’t even attend to the names on the right hand side of the ballot.
The design of the butterfly ballot may have seemed “obvious” to the well-intentioned folks in Florida, but clearly, not everyone understood the design. The result: those now famous 19 thousand
invalid votes. Various bureaucrats likely thought the two-column format was great, but alas, the butterfly ballot has sparked tremendous controversy and concern, if not a genuine electoral crisis.
The fate of the nation may now depend on a form – a simple election ballot. Had proper forms analysis been performed, ballot designers would have found that Florida law stipulates that voters
‘place an X to the right’ of the candidate of their choice. Debate about the law aside, I am amazed that a document intended for use by thousands of diverse people wasn’t tested first. A quick
sampling of fifty mock votes at the local senior center would have certainly exposed the confusing design.
The argument that voters have been using butterfly ballots for years without any problem does not hold water. There have been problems, as evidenced by the fact that a similar percentage of Florida
ballots were rejected in past elections for the same reasons found this time around. The difference is that this time the rejected votes actually mean something. Unlike in years past, in this
historic dead-heat, every vote counts. Document professionals have long known that there is more to forms design than simply placing words and boxes on paper. Now the entire country is beginning to
clue in. The selection of our president might well come down to a matter of poor document design.