Making our ballot sheets easier to read

Literacy has greatly improved since the 1970s, as has the public’s access to information.

I’d say – as an outsider, mind you – that the electoral process for the local and European elections was generally a well-managed exercise. Managing elections is a constant tightrope walk between voter rights on one hand and the need for public transparency on the other. And, in Malta’s case, progress may be slow but it’s progress nonetheless.

Take the issue of early voting, for example. When it was introduced 15 years ago it was not to general approval. The Labour Party, then still bruised from the 2008 general election, voted against. At the time, it was only for those would-be voters who wouldn’t be in Malta on the actual polling day and who had to take an oath (at first, only at the Electoral Office in Valletta) to this effect.

As from this election, no oath is required. It’s been replaced by a simple declaration which can conveniently be done entirely online. The experience of a general election under pandemic conditions seems to have greatly focused – and enlightened – minds but, most important of all, the trend is towards improvement.

Ballot paper design

There will always be things to improve, like the way the voting document is delivered. But today I’d like to focus on one element that rarely gets much attention: the ballot sheet.

Apart from the inclusion of the candidates’ photo (introduced for the European election of 2019), the design of our ballot sheet is largely unchanged from the general election of 1976. Before then, all candidates’ names, irrespective of party, were arranged in alphabetical order by surname in a single list. The only way to distinguish their party affiliation was the party emblem next to their name. In 1976 the sensible approach was taken, grouping candidates under their party heading.

Close to half a century has passed since then. Literacy has greatly improved, as has the public’s access to information. There is also better understanding of how people read and interpret texts thanks to developments in cognitive psychology and their applications in daily life, like in advertising and copy editing. We now have many tools at our disposal beyond basic good intentions to help voters.

Some suggestions

First, remove the candidates’ addresses (also because they deserve some privacy) and their profession. That’s unnecessary information on the ballot sheet. Standard design advice: don’t use block letters or text that is centred, justified, sans serif or of different point size. Second, pictograms should be used sparingly. Party emblems need only appear once next to the Party name without the need to repeat it next to every candidate’s name. Needless to say, independent candidates have no party, so no emblems or logos for them.

Remove colours to distinguish parties. If, for some reason, you can’t tell the difference between the torch and il-maduma, you are even less likely to tell the difference between red and blue. If colours are to be used, they’re better employed in the sheet colour to distinguish between that to elect MEPs and that to elect local councillors. That would be more consequential considering that, as was reported, counting was delayed on Sunday because some voters cast their vote in the wrong ballot box.

Why is this important?

Now this might seem like too much detail. Maybe. But it’s far from being unimportant. Long ago, I worked in the social sector. I know how many people, vulnerable in many ways (from poor education to poor eyesight), found themselves excluded from opportunities they were entitled to by instructions that were unclear, badly written, or downright confusing.

Once again, public transparency is necessary for free and fair elections. But let’s also make efforts to make life easier for voters. The quality of our democracy depends on it.

Franklin Mamo lives in Brussels. The views expressed here are entirely personal.

Photo: Times of Malta

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Dr. Mark Said
Dr. Mark Said
1 month ago

I strongly disagree with the proposed removal of the candidates’ profession or type of employment. This is a pivotal characteristic that a discerning voter has to take into consideration before deciding to whom his or her vote should go. It provides greater insight into the qualities and credentials of the candidate.