Instructions on vote-by-mail ballots build confidence in Arapahoe County

How can good voter instructions reduce the workload of election judges during election season? In Arapahoe County, Colorado, the right instructions to tell voters to remove ballot stubs made it easier to count vote-by-mail ballots.

Like many paper ballots, those in Arapahoe County have a stub with information to identify the ballot type. In the county’s ballot processing facility , the stubs are removed so that ballots can be scanned correctly.

Under the new Colorado election model introduced in 2014, over 90% of voters in Arapahoe County returned the ballot mailed to them at a drop box or through the mail.

The only downside of this change was that many of the ballots were returned with their stub still attached. Election facility workers would then have to manually detach the ballot stubs with the QR code** by folding back the top strip of paper and tearing along the perforation line to separate the ballot stub from the ballot. This slowed down the process of opening and scanning ballots, filled the air with shreds of paper dust, and left the county with many large bins of paper stubs to dispose of.

The idea was ingeniously simple. They would add a simple instruction to the stub telling voters to tear it off.

Unfortunately getting voters to remove that useful, but pesky stub was not an overnight success story. It took trial and error to convince voters to remove their own ballot stubs.

When we asked how they did it, we learned that it took a combination of techniques to make the instruction easy to understand:

  • Simple language that was not “government speak”
  • Including  not just what to do but why voters were being asked to do it
  • Supplementing instructions on the ballot with clear information in the voter instruction guide.

Finally, in the November 2016 General Election, the Arapahoe County Clerk’s Office collected less than a bin full of ballot stubs from ballots that were cast. Most voters had removed the stubs themselves.

November 2015

The original ballot stub had no instructions at all, so it’s not surprising that so many of the ballots were returned with the stub still attached.

Ballot stub with just the QR code identifying the ballot type

November 2015 – The original ballot stub.

June 2016

For the June 2016 Primary Election, they printed instructions on the ballot stub instructing voters to tear it off. But things didn’t go quite as planned.

Stub with the instruction VOTER PLEASE REMOTE THIS BALLOT STUB

June 2016 – The new instruction was short and direct.

What was intended to be a clear and simple instruction, in fact, caused a considerable amount of angst amongst voters.

The Arapahoe County Clerk’s office received calls from voters who were skeptical and confused about why the stub had to be removed. Would this disqualify their ballot? Will their vote get counted? Was this a type of partisanship that unfairly targeted certain ballots? The election office quickly realized that the instructions needed to be updated with more information to reduce voter anxiety.

November 2016

They revised the instructions for removing the ballot stubs for the November 2016 General Election ballot. This time, the instructions clearly explained what the QR code was needed for and why the county office was requesting voters to remove the stub before casting their vote. To further dispel fears, there was an “I voted” sticker printed on to the stub so people felt confident about removing the stub.

Stub with the instruction Please remove this stub: The QR code on this stub ensures every voter receives the correct ballot. You can help election workers count ballots quicker by removing this stub before returning your voted ballot.

November 2016 – The revised instruction is still in clear plain language, but now it adds a reason.

Voter instruction guides were also updated to include information on the QR code. The language explaining the process was simplified by removing a lot of “government speak” out of it. The thinking was – if people clearly understood what they were reading, they would be more confident about the action they were taking.

Together, these changes did the trick.

The number of phone calls inquiring about the ballot stubs reduced to a trickle in the November 2016 election. Along with increasing voter confidence, the updated instructions also had a tangible impact on how quickly ballots could be opened and scanned.

As Jennifer Morrell, Deputy of Elections and Recording, told us, they learned that when you are writing a plain language message for voters, it may not be the fewest words you want. Instead, you need to learn what voters need to know to trust the information. And to write it simply and clearly, so it’s easy to understand.

Good instructions make for a good voting experience!

** About that QR code. The 2-D QR codes are part of the quality control function of the ballot mailing process. Election workers scan these codes to make sure that each voter receives the correct ballot, envelope, other materials in the ballot packet. It does not contain any Voter ID number.

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