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When Americans head to the polls in November, many will have made up their minds long in advance. But others will still be undecided as they face a ballot form or lever or computer touch-screen. For them, the ballot may become a last-minute lobby for their unconsciousness.

"The ballot itself is just the last point of sale," says Andrew Reynolds, PhD, a University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, political scientist.

Aspects of a ballot's design, such as candidates' name order and symbolic images, can have profound influence on a voter's choice, Reynolds says. To design a neutral and fair ballot, he says, election officials need to consider these biases and work to avoid them. It's a natural job for psychologists.

Unfortunately, psychologists are rarely brought to the table for design discussions, says Stanford University psychologist Jon Krosnick, PhD. For example, name order has been recognized as a force that shapes people's voting behavior for at least 100 years, he says. Although a handful of states rotate candidate name order from precinct to precinct, most use nonrandom ordering techniques. Some list candidates alphabetically, some list incumbents first, some list candidates belonging to the governor's party first, but all of them give an edge to the first candidate listed.

Krosnick points to a prescient 1910 quote from Woodrow Wilson: When a voter "does not know a great deal about the derivation and character and association of every nominee," then, "in nine out of 10 cases, he will simply mark the first name under each office."

Krosnick's own research backs Wilson up. In 1998, he and University of Minnesota political scientist Joanne Miller, PhD, looked at the effects of name order in the 1992 Ohio state elections (Public Opinion Quarterly, No. 62). They found a statistically significant tendency to vote for the first name listed in 48 percent of the races. On average, those names received 2.5 percent more votes than their lower-ordered ballot peers.

Blame the "primacy effect," Krosnick says. When people enter the polls, many feel it's their civic duty to vote in all races, even if they know nothing about the candidates. Conversely, they may know so much about each candidate that they're deeply conflicted and can't decide. When it comes time to choose, both sets of voters may think they're choosing randomly, he says, but they actually lean toward the first name listed.

Voting in the golden years

Senior citizens have it even harder. They face additional voting struggles, such as navigating unfamiliar technologies that weren't designed to account for declining motor and cognitive skills. For older adults, casting an accurate ballot can be frustrating, slow and error-prone, says Tiffany Jastrzembski, PhD, a cognitive psychologist at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Mesa, Ariz.

"Older adults have no problem conceptualizing what they need to do when voting," she says, "but in terms of actually completing the ballots correctly on electronic voting machines, sometimes they have difficulty."

Jastrzembski's research, published in the fall 2007 Ergonomics in Design, looked at older adults' (in this study, age 64 to 77) competency in completing electronic ballots. She compared different combinations of two factors: touch screens versus keypads and whether individual races were presented one at a time or all on the same screen.

The best-case scenario in terms of accuracy, Jastrzembski found, was a touch screen combined with one-race-at-a-time choices. Keypads present a difficulty that many younger computer users take for granted: conceptualizing the relationship between what's on the screen and which button to press. Even hitting the right key can be tricky for seniors with impaired motor skills.

When the entire ballot was displayed at once, seniors were more likely to inadvertently select the wrong candidate or omit a vote. When there's a lot on the screen, she explains, fonts tend to be tinier and, with touch screens, the touch-targets tend to be smaller and spaced more closely. The overabundance of information can also cause confusion, says Jastrzembski.

Get out the vote

The Gerontological Society of America recently developed a committee to facilitate translating research into legal requirements for ballot design, and psychologists are part of that effort, Jastrzembski says. It's an example of psychologists promoting the practical uses of their research, and she encourages psychologists to do it more often.

Krosnick agrees. He's afraid that too often psychological research gets picked up by other disciplines, such as political science, whose practitioners translate the findings into their own public policy agendas. Election officials don't get a clear picture of what psychology specifically has to offer, says Krosnick.

"Many policy-makers just aren't aware of the expertise that psychologists bring to the table," he says, and as a result they don't use psychology to inform ballot design. "Psychologists haven't yet had a very loud voice in the proceedings."

Krosnick and Jastrzembski both recommend discussing relevant research with the media and talking directly to election officials. Also, Krosnick would like to see funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation and organizations like APA make ballot design a priority.

"In a political system like ours, it's particularly important that every member of society, with different cognitive abilities and literacy levels, be able to complete a ballot as they wish," he says.''