Design principles for ranked choice voting

Best practices for designing ballots, voter education, and election results.

The Center for Civic Design partnered with the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center and FairVote  to research best practices for ranked choice ballot design, voter education, and results presentation.

The first phase of that research wrapped up in December 2016, with a report that provides principles and guidelines for designing ranked choice voting ballots, voter education, and results presentation.

Read the report: Best practices for ranked choice voting ballots and other materials

Designing ranked choice voting materials

Ranked choice voting elicits strong opinions, but when it is used, we think voters deserve information and ballot design that helps ensure they can vote as intended and understand how their vote will be counted.

Our goal in this project is to present best practice designs that can be used anywhere there is a ranked choice voting election to support the goal of making every vote count.

The work on this project started with a review of the wide variety of materials already in use around the country from Portland, Maine to San Francisco, California.

We then created prototype materials—ballots, voter education, and results details—using the guidelines for ballot design from the Election Assistance Commission and the Field Guides for Ensuring Voter Intent. This meant that the differences between different ballots focused on the layout and interaction with ranking rather than the quality of the design.

Testing with voters in California, New Jersey, and Minneapolis helped us refine the prototypes to identify broad design principles that can apply to a wide range of ballot styles and other materials.

We are continuing to refine the best practices, adding:

  • Results for both single-winner and multi-winner elections
  • A larger scale test comparing 3 paper ballot designs
  • Testing to compare different approaches to digital ballot marking


Summary of the best practices

The best practices are guidance, not a rigid standard. The examples are a toolkit of designs that worked well in our testing, which election officials can put to work in creating their own materials.

Each of the best practice guidelines looks at one element of voter materials to show how it contributes to helping people participate in ranked choice voting as informed voters. There are also some examples that did not work well, and which we recommend avoiding.

We hope that this provides a balance between wanting to know the “best” design and the need to create election materials that must adapt to the specifics of local election law, current procedures, and voting systems.

The report, Best practices for ranked choice voting ballots and other materials, includes examples and illustrations for each of the guidelines.

Principles for designing voter information

Give voters the information they need to prepare to vote.  Before the actual voting day, voters should have access to voter education materials that clearly explain the concept of ranked choice voting. This will prepare voters to make confident  choices on the day of voting.

  • Explain the benefits and basics of ranked choice voting. Start with a simple definition. Focus on the most important benefits. Keep the text short.
  • Answer voters’ questions about how to make their choices and how their ballot is counted. In our testing, the top questions were: how many do they need to rank, how ranking affects their first choice, and when additional choices are counted.
  • Show the connection between an individual ballot and the overall counting process. Explain what happens, show an example on a ballot, and show the result of each round in a simplified visual.
  • Repeat and re-emphasize important points about ranked choice voting across different materials and on the ballot.

Present all information in clear, simple language.  Explain ranked choice voting in plain language across all materials, avoiding jargon as much as possible. Voters of different literacy levels must all understand the information you provide.

  • Keep information short and to the point, using everyday words. Ranked choice voting can seem complicated, so making the information simple is especially important.
  • Use illustrations and visual explanations to help explain how ranked choice voting works.
  • Use icons sparingly to draw attention to different types of information.

Repeat important messages across different voting materials.  Voter education and ballot instructions support each other. Voters should be able to easily access relevant information as they need it.

  • Provide general instructions about ranked choice voting in the polling place or vote-by-mail materials in an appropriate format.
  • On a digital ballot, make this information easy to find with an always visible “help” button on all screens.

Best practices for displaying election results

Make election results transparent.  Show the process of counting a ranked choice voting election when reporting election results. This will help voters understand how the winner is determined and build confidence in the voting system.

  • When reporting results, show the winner, before explaining the counting process.
  • First describe what happens in each round, then follow with a visual display
  • Show all rounds of counting. Include vote totals for each candidate, the number of votes removed or added, the number of inactive ballots and a “goal line” for the winners.
  • Make it easy to see the number of votes transferred to each candidate during each round.
  • Show inactive ballots in the results list. Differentiate inactive ballots from the active candidates.
  • Make it easy for users to navigate both forwards and backwards to see the process of counting.

Best practices for ballot design

Use best practices for ballot design.  Use best practices for ballot design from the Election Assistance Commission and Voluntary Voting System Guidelines requirements for accessibility as a starting point for ballot layouts for any ranked choice voting contest.

  • Use typography to make the ballot easy to read.  Use size and weight to make candidate names stand out. Have a consistent relationship between the candidate name and marking area.
  • Use visual design to attract attention and separate contests.
  • On a digital ballot, only one contest per page.
    If this is not possible, check carefully that each contest has equal weight on the page, there is clear separation between contests, that each contest fits on a single page or in a single column, and that the voter controls navigation between contest.
  • On a digital ballot, use a vertical screen orientation (a screen that is taller than wider) so that more candidates can fit on each screen

On a digital ballot, give the voter control of all interactions. Using a digital ballot should be simple and straightforward. This is especially helpful for people not familiar with computers and people with disabilities.

  • Have visible controls for all actions. Controls tell voters what actions are possible. Visible controls are also important for accessibility.
  • Provide a review screen where voters can confirm and change their choices and rankings. Display candidates in rank order on the review screen. Include information about how many rankings are possible and if the voter has additional options to rank more candidates.
  • Do not automatically re-order candidates.
  • Allow voters to leave candidates out of the ranking. Candidates not ranked are moved to the end of the list when displayed in rank order.

Include clear, concise instructions that will help voters avoid errors and rank candidates as they intend. Instructions on paper and digital ballots should be easy to find and easy to follow.

  • Put instructions where voters need them. On a paper ballot, put instructions on the top of the ballot, or just before the first ranked choice voting contest. On a digital ballot, place instructions at the top of each contest.
  • Use informational icons and typography for emphasis.
  • On a paper ballot, use illustrations with text instructions for how to mark a ranked choice ballot. Show one correct way of marking. Or, show the correct way of marking with examples of common errors.
  • On a digital ballot, show the voter’s progress in ranking candidates.