In 2000, the infamous "Butterfly Ballot" probably threw the election to George W. Bush, costing Americans more than a trillion dollars and who knows what else. Can it happen again? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Right now, in King County, Washington, an abysmally designed ballot runs the risk of driving the state into the ground. The problem has two parts.
First, the State of Washington is unfortunate enough to have an idiot named Tim Eyman who makes his living on proposing initiatives. He doesn't do anything else. Initially, he denied that he was making money off the initiatives that he proposed, but enough information was made public that he had to admit it. When he proposed his first initiative, he apparently sold watches, but I think that business is long gone. His first initiative was a "$30 car tab initiative." Eyman picked that number out of thin air (literally, it came from Colorado, with no relationship to the cost of anything in Washington). Some of the people who voted for it who promptly lost their jobs after the election because of all the programs that were slashed, but they didn't see the connection. And Eyman, who said repeatedly that the initiative wasn't about him, went out and bought an expensive SUV right after the election. Amazingly, Eyman managed to garner a following of people who'll vote for anything that will supposedly cut their taxes without regard to what it actually means. This year, Eyman's initiative, I-1033, is one more poorly thought-out proposal. Pick the worst state budget in ten years, in the midst of a recession, and force the state to stick with that budget, essentially, forever.
So what's this have to do with UX? Well, Eyman is only thinking about himself. What provocative initiative can he propose to guarantee that he's still paid a salary? He doesn't care about the experience of the average Washingtonian. I don't even think he cares if the initiative passes. If it fails, he's got another one to propose to pay him through the next election. This is no way to design a government that works for all the people. With good design, you need to think about the whole range of people that will be affected -- and, funny thing about it, that's what our whole legislative process is designed for. Gadflies and devil's advocates can be extremely useful and have a long, rich history in this country. If Tim Eyman actually cared about the state, he would work with our government rather than against it, but, alas, there's no profit in that.
On to the second issue.
King County royally screwed up the ballot, literally marginalizing I-1033. Take a look:
The first column of the ballot contains the instructions that nobody reads, and the top of the second column looks like the start of the ballot, not the middle. This means that some King County voters, perhaps many, will start in the second column and miss voting in I-1033.
The naysayers argue that it's trivial and that, even it's not, it doesn't matter because both people voting for and against the initiative will miss it. On the trivial argument, go back to the top and think about the Butterfly Ballot and what an effect it had. On the second argument, that would be valid if every ballot in the state had the exact same problem, but only King County has the problem. And it is not the case that voters in King County and the rest of the state vote for and against initiatives in approximately equal percentages. In fact, King County voters are more likely to vote against Eyman's initiatives. Combine that with the fact that King County is the most populous county in the state and you definitely have the possibility of a fraudulent election. Despite a large push by the No On 1033 campaign to alert voters to the problem, I am sure that we will see significantly fewer people voting on I-1033 than on other ballot items.
In summary, design really matters and bad design hurts. The only question here is whether the bad design will be big enough to swing the election.