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Lost in the mail: How to redesign an election for the pandemic

August 4, 2020, 10:25 AM UTC

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Good morning, Eamon Barrett here, filling in for Clay Chandler today.

Last Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested the November election should be postponed until after the pandemic, claiming that an increase in mail-in voting would lead to an increase in voter fraud. There’s no evidence to support Trump’s claim, but there is evidence that an increase in vote-by-mail will strain a system ill-equipped to handle it, creating a new imperative for designers to rethink how the U.S. casts its ballots.

The modern push for electoral redesign arguably began after the 2000 vote and the infamous Floridian “butterfly ballot,” where the names of candidates aligned with the wrong checkbox. Some blame the confusing ballot design for costing Al Gore the election.

The controversy prompted the University of Illinois at Chicago to launch the Voting Experience Redesign Initiative (VERI), which produced new design standards for ballots and voting stations. Since then, other design labs, such as IDEO, have tackled the issue of electoral design too, while the work of VERI, now known as AIGA’s Design for Democracy initiative, continues.

Ballot layouts and booth design are issues of voting apparatus; the pandemic has highlighted problems with the voting process. In the era of social distancing, mail-in voting has become an obvious alternative to standing in line at polling places. In primaries across 16 states since the end of April, mail-in ballots counted for 80% of voter turnout, compared to 12% in 2016.

According to research published last month by MIT, mail-in ballots have a higher likelihood of being unfairly discounted due to errors in processing. In 2016, the report says, 4% of all mail-in ballots for the national election were unfairly excluded, or “lost.”

The report warns that as more states engage in vote-by-mail, the percentage will likely increase as administrators struggle to implement effective systems. New York, for example, allowed votes in its disastrous June primary to be counted so long as the postmark on the returning envelope was dated before the election deadline. The state had issued ballots with prepaid return envelopes—good. However, the postal service usually doesn’t postmark prepaid envelopes and, according to a lawsuit against the primary, thousands of votes in prepaid envelopes were “lost” because they didn’t have a postmark.

That’s just one hitch in vote-by-mail that needs to be ironed out. (Speaking of, in 2008, California delayed its vote count because tens of thousands of postal votes literally needed ironing out—they had been crumpled in the mail and had to be flattened before being fed into the tabulator.)

If the upswing in vote-by-mail continues as expected in November, there are doubts the U.S. postal service and state electoral officials are equipped for the challenge. Preparing them requires funding—to the tune of about $1 billion—as well as effective and efficient system management.

A week from today, on August 11, the Brennan Center For Justice is hosting a talk entitled Bad Ballots and Lost Vote: The Path to Better Ballot Design, that will likely address a lot of these issues. It should be worth tuning into.

More below.

Eamon Barrett
eamon.barrett@fortune.com

NEWS BY DESIGN

In you we trust

Mississippi has received some 3,000 submissions from the public for its new state flag, which you can view here. The commission to redesign the flag will now shortlist a maximum of 225 by August 7, and rank their top ten choices, narrowing it down to a top five by August 14.

GTA

Renault has hired former Peugeot design director Gilles Vidal, likely placing him in charge of managing the automaker’s branding. It’s the second design steal in a week for Renault, which also hired SEAT design director Alejandro Mesonero-Romanos last week.

Doublecheck

WhatsApp is piloting a new feature that allows users to fact check chain messages. As of today, a magnifying glass icon should appear next to messages that have been forward through five or more people. Tapping the icon will prompt WhatsApp to search the web for news related to the message content—the idea being it will snuff out any common conspiracy theories or misleading information.

Space

The U.S. Space Force launched (pun intended) its official logo, which looks like an embossed arrow head with a star in the center. The final design is a reduction of one unveiled by President Trump in late January. The logo has its critics, some of whom compare the design to badges warn by the space crew in Star Trek.

Make happy

Here’s more insight on the trend towards joy in design, which looks primarily at what one U.K. designer has dubbed New London Fabulous—“design and architecture as a visual and cultural pursuit, which is a highly aesthetic, sensual and celebratory of mixed cultures.”

Kansai Yamamoto

Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto died on July 21 at the age of 76. The designer created stage costumes for megastars Elton John, Lady Gaga and, perhaps most famously, David Bowie, whom Yamamoto outfitted as Aladdin Sane in 1973.

EVENTS BY DESIGN

August

Web design conference Beyond Tellerrand has rescheduled its August event in Berlin to September next year. However, organizers hope their event in Düsseldorf will continue as re-scheduled in November

Copenhagen’s NordDesign festival, with its focus on industrial and product design, will be online this year, August 12-24

The 6th International Conference on Design Creativity will continue as scheduled August 26-28, but will be online rather than in Finland, as initially planned.

September

London Design Festival has decided to go ahead September 12-20, with a stripped-down offline program that will target Londoners much more than international visitors. Other events will be online. The organizers are still figuring out how exactly to proceed.

Design Matters in Copenhagen appears to be carrying on, too, September 23-24, although it is now selling tickets to view a livestream of the event.

QUOTED BY DESIGN

“Being an innovator means that you try things and fail, but you learn and adjust. Our Houses of Innovation try to delve into that commitment that we have.”

Nike’s chief design officer John Hoke discusses the ideal behind the brand’s new flagship store, which opened in Paris last week. The House of Innovation 002 (oddly, Nike’s third House of Innovation) is in a 100-year old building on the prim Champs-Elyseés. The new store is reportedly powered by renewable energy and contains some 85,000 kilograms of “sustainable material.” Flexing Nike’s green credentials, Hoke says 'form follows function' isn’t enough anymore. “Where I’m going is ‘form and function follows footprint’," he says.