Back when Brexit was still what everyone was talking about, there was this Vox article extolling the virtues of the “amazingly simple” ballot used for the referendum.
But there’s one part of the Brexit vote that the US could gain a lot from imitating: It has an extremely clear, easy-to-understand ballot.
The question is written in plain language: “Should the United Kingdom remain in the European Union or leave the European Union?” And while it’s a yes-no question, the options make it perfectly clear which one you’re choosing and how you should do it. (The Scottish referendum ballot in 2014 was even clearer: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”)
And I mean, my goodness—isn’t it beautiful? So clear! So simple! This is a wonderful example of the kind of drafting clarity that gets writers’ and designers’ hearts all a-flutter. Imagine going into a voting booth and seeing that ballot, its two huge empty boxes, each one calling out to you, inviting you to fill it up, tempting you to lay down your big, thick, juicy X in its sultry frame … well, it makes voting almost seem fun.
More importantly, the ballot makes it seem like leaving the EU is a simple, straightforward process. I mean, first you’re in the EU; then you’re not. End of story. Right?
Except we’ve found out that Brexit is a little more complicated than all that. In fact, no one seems to know how the hell it’s going to work. The UK has to invoke something called Article 50, but it’s not clear who’s actually going to so, or when. Then there’s the matter of renegotiating all the UK’s trade agreements. And by the way, does Parliament has to vote on the matter?
It’s a total friggin’ mess. But the design of the ballot simply abstracts it all away. Suggests none of the complexity involved. Offers zero context for what leaving the EU actually entails.
The Vox article I linked to at the top of this post goes on to present a few examples of what it criticizes as poor ballot design. And it’s true that those examples are far from paragons of clarity. In my view, however, they do feature one major benefit: they reveal the guts of how the laws in question would actually work. When I’m voting on whether to allow Uber and Lyft to operate in my city, for example, I’m not sure it’s a bad thing to be reminded—_in the voting booth_—of what existing laws would need to get repealed for that to happen.1
The Vox article also references several studies that show how poorly designed ballots can obscure issues, decrease voter participation, and lead to thousands of votes getting thrown out without being counted.2 Those things are bad, and I agree that it’s important to design ballots thoughtfully. But thoughtful design goes further than clean lines and Strunkian minimalism.
Voting is a serious activity with potentially enormous consequences. It is not a Futura activity. It’s not even a Helvetica activity. It’s a Times New Roman activity, through and through.
Though the Brexit ballot may indeed be a model of “drafting clarity”, it’s also a model of obfuscation: a terrific example of why you should be extremely careful when you start dumbing down complex ideas in the pursuit of simplicity.
- Yes, I’m presumably stepping into the voting booth having already done my research, my decisions already made. But not always. How many of us have remained undecided up till the moment of truth? How many of us have had a last-minute change of heart? And in that moment, would you prefer to be reminded of the gravity of your decision, or the lightness of it? ↩
- The article cites one study of “more than 1,200 state-level ballot questions” which found you’d need, on average, “more than a four-year college degree in order to understand what you were being asked to vote on.” Which sounds really, really bad! However, as far as I can tell, this claim is based on the Flesch-Kincaid reading score—which is a completely worthless metric. ↩