Dramatic differences in voter guides

It’s hard to see how big a change is when you are in the middle of it. An edit here, a new design tweak there, and pretty soon, you have a whole new voter guide.

That’s what happened in California, where more than half of the counties updated some or all of their voter information guides for the 2016 June Primary Election. Some of the changes are large. Some are in content, others in the page design. But they add up to better information for voters in California.

The project to create templates, content, and images that any county could use for a voter guide, as part of the larger program of the Future of California Elections, started by working with three counties—Orange, Shasta, and Santa Cruz.

Our goal? Helping more counties use these templates for the General Election. And even more dramatic improvements.

Our original plan was for the pilot of the new voter guides to just include these three counties. But, before the election, there was enough interest to broaden the project.  Nancy Frishberg ran training workshops across the state, and we worked with a few more counties with individual consults.

After the election, we wanted to get a sense of what kinds of changes made it into the voter guides for the Primary.

Instead of telling you about the changes, take a peek at what a few of the pages looked like, before (June 2014 ) and after (June 2016) the updates.

Covers from Nevada
Before: Nevada County had a very simple cover in the Primary, but it’s not obvious why some information is shown in white text on a dark blue box.(June 2014)

After: Using the colored boxes to highlight name of the VIP, and in a lighter shade, the date and hours polls are open, the cover offers a hierarchy without creating clutter (June 2016)
1 of
Covers from Sacramento
Before: Sacramento’s red blocks draw attention at top and bottom of page, but the text in the center is just legal notices about what languages are available. (June 2014)

After: The cover emphasizes the election name, date and time in each of the required languages – English, Spanish and Chinese - providing real information immediately. (June 2016)
1 of
Pages from Nevada
How to Vote
Before: Nevada County had an illustration on top with a big block of instructions on the lower half of the page. The block of text is a bit intimidating.(June 2014)

After: The consistent use of page banners and headings breaks up the text. Illustrations of what to do – and not do – makes the new page easier on the eye. (June 2016)
1 of
Pages from Madera
How to Vote
Before: Madera County’s Instructions to voters are shown in both languages, Spanish and English, on a single page, but it’s crowded. (June 2014)

After: Organizing the information into 4 blocks of bullets, each with an illustration, stretching over 2 pages is less intimidating for both English and Spanish speakers. (June 2016)
1 of
Pages from Tuolumne
How to Vote
Before: A numbered list with instructions for how to vote are crammed into the top of the page in small text, and Tuolumne’s polling places are listed below. (June 2014)

After: Text instructions complement an illustration showing do’s and don’ts with callouts of a ballot.
Polling places now have a separate page. (June 2016)
1 of
Pages from Yuba
Touch screen voting
Before: Big letters, small letters, and several illustration styles, it’s hard to know where to look on a busy page of instructions for using the touch screen ballot. (June 2014)

After: Yuba County simplified the text for instructions, included numbered steps, keeping text on the left, and illustrations on the right, with lots of open space. (June 2016)
1 of
Pages from Solano
About Primaries
Before: Solano County’s explanation of Top Two primaries was brief. Perhaps too brief. And, another topic shared the bottom of the same page. (June 2014)

After: Solano used the page template with a banner at top and accurate explanations about Top Two primaries, including how to know which party the voter is registered with. (June 2016)
1 of
Pages from San Mateo
3 ways to vote
Before: Despite strong page banners, San Mateo’s text for 3 ways to vote was dense on the page, and arrows loop around to point at excerpts from other documents (June 2014)

After: Using their own illustrations, now uniformly styled, San Mateo offers a clean description of their 3 ways (by mail, early in person, and at the polls) (June 2016)
1 of
pages from Orange County
Important Information
Before: Orange County’s previous page style included outline around the page title, and around the 2 columns of text-only content, about voter eligibility, accessibility and dates. (June 2014)

After: Adopting the new style with consistent page banners, Orange was able to fit the same information, and add calendar showing key dates before the June 7th primary. (June 2016)
1 of

See what we mean? Pretty dramatic.

In case you are wondering, most of these examples are from counties who worked on their own, using the templates and sample content we created. We were pleased to learn that local election offices are able to make good use of those resources.

So, we took a look at the voter guides from all 58 counties. The result: 33 counties used some part of the new materials.

  • 7 went all the way with a complete redesign
  • 23 adopted some elements, often the cover or specific content like the new explanation of the Top Two primary system
  • 3 included the new Voter Bill of Rights, as published by the Secretary of State’s office.

On a map, it looks like this.

Map showing the counties. See the report, page 18, for the full list.

Counties using the template or other materials in the June Primary Election. From the report: Implementing best practices for voter guides in the 2016 California Primary

Even the small, tweaky-seeming changes to voter guides can make a big difference in helping voters understand what their options are and what’s on the ballot. The changes may not be obvious to voters, but voters will feel the differences as they read through the guides, and when they get to marking a ballot. 

Want to know more?

Report: Implementing best practices for voter guides in the 2016 California Primary

Resources: Designing a voter guide to an election

Project:  How voters get information

Showcase: Voter guides show off best practices in California

Field Guide: Vol. 6 Designing voter education booklets and flyers