My first job out of college was to be the afternoon news anchor for a small AM radio station that ended up going out of business within two months of my starting there. I’m not going to put two and two together there…
My second job was working in an industry that hardly exists anymore: business forms printing. You remember business forms? Those preprinted documents you used to run through something called a typewriter, or, if it was a continuous form, you put on the sprockets of a forms printer.
I may be the only candidate for California Secretary of State in our great history who has not only sold, but actually designed business forms. I know what makes for an easily understandable document, and what makes one needlessly complicated. This is, in fact a pertinent qualification for an office that may issue more business forms than any other state agency.
Like the paper Voter Registration Form. Have you seen one lately? Here’s a link to my website with a photo of the LA County form (click to enlarge).
At a recent speaking engagement in the San Fernando Valley, one of the attendees approached me with a California Voter Registration Form. She introduced herself as someone who has helped Californians register to vote for many years. “This form biases people towards registering No Party Preference,” she said. I admit I was skeptical, but upon examining the form, I found interesting design elements that could very well influence one’s choices…particularly in the area of party identification.
In form design there are ways to “nudge” an applicant towards focusing on certain areas (at best), or making certain decisions (at worst). Things like type size, bold face type, colored type, and colored shaded boxes (called “screening”) direct our eyes towards particular areas on a printed piece of paper. That’s why when you glance at the California Voter Registration form, your eye falls on several different areas: the red type, the black bold face type, and the four green shaded areas.
One spots that has black bold type set inside a screened box is under question 14: “Do you want to choose a political party preference?” Beneath the question, the shaded box contains it’s own choice in bold letters: “No Party Preference” with a following explanation, “No, I do not want to choose a political party preference. (If you choose this box, you may not be able to vote for some parties’ candidates at a primary election for U.S. President or party committee.)”
Next to this green box is a white box with six party preferences plus “Other” – all in plain black type.
Now I’m not accusing anyone at the Secretary of State’s office of intentionally trying to get Californians to register No Party Preference, but a rookie forms designer would know the current California Voter Registration Form directs an applicant’s attention towards that decision.
What’s the solution?
If you really wanted to have a “cleaner” form, one solution would be to turn “Question 14” into a statement: “Political Identification:”. Then, in the options, include “No Party Preference” alongside the other options. I’d even be OK with bold-facing that option.
Interestingly, the Online Voter Registration process also highlights a completely separate answer box for No Party Preference, leading the eye away from where the political parties are listed.
As I’ve said from the outset of my campaign, graphic design can play an incredibly important role in stimulating civic engagement. What we don’t want to see from the Secretary of State’s office is even the appearance of tilting the scales of participation towards one party…or no party.
Pete Peterson is a Republican candidate for California Secretary of State, and is Executive Director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy.