My Democratic Labyrinth
A month before election day, the mail-in ballot arrives. This long lead time rightfully suggests that voting will require weeks of research work. If I were in a voting booth, the whole ticket would appear at once with its many pages of candidates, propositions, and measures–as if every citizen is prepared to sort through the lists of unknown judges or candidates for offices that somehow were never clearly explained in my non-existent high school Civics class. Commissioners, Supervisors, and—Equalizers? Terminators? What arcane bureaucratic universe are we in? I know I should know, but I don’t have a grasp on the hierarchy of city officials and posts. I realize I am largely clueless about the structure of my own government beyond the few high offices that get media attention. Labyrinth level number one.
The red, white, and blue motifs blazoned on the outer envelope signal the official status of the bright bold packet. The ballot is a legal document issued to all eligible voters of the State of California who are registered with a mailing address. The flat envelope seems innocuous enough, though on the back is a warning statement about the crime of voting more than once in an election. Guess the old “vote early, vote often” joke is not very funny in these times.
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As it turns out, completing this ballot even once is a daunting task. Who would voluntarily repeat the exercise and run the gauntlet of graphic confusion a second time—or a third? Part of the challenge is the graphic design of its contents. To be fair, this is an official document. Its style sensibility has about as much to recommend it as the interior décor of a DMV. Would anyone go to those offices to get ideas on how to decorate their domestic interiors? Care-worn plastic chairs and equally aged fluorescent lights twitching? Functional design, in the bureaucratic rather than Modern sense, is all that can be hoped for with taxpayer dollars. A kind of punitive efficiency prevails.
As a physical artifact, however, the ballot has certain wonderful features. For instance, it is a small masterwork of paper engineering. The outer envelope sheath perfectly protects the smaller inner envelope. The fit is snug, not tight. The sturdy card-stock ballot has been scored for clean folding. And the compact instructions on lighter weight paper have slipped without crease or wrinkle into their appointed slot. Together these make a neat, crisp, single packet that unfolds with the precision of a nested Russian doll. Labyrinth level two. This is 19th- to mid-20th-century technology (the first patent for an automatic folding machine seems to have been issued in November 1849 to Edward N. Smith of Massachusetts). The paper engineering is top of the line, from a time when things used to work properly.
But the graphic design seems to have gotten stuck in a 1950s civil service style about the same vintage as now vanished plastic pocket protectors. From a basic content analysis point of view (information studies asserts itself here), the organization of categories is baffling. In other words, you can’t tell what is important and what isn’t. For instance, the state offices like the Governor’s race, are treated in the same even-handed manner as the rat-catcher and City Council candidates. Nothing separates ballot measures from judges. And though the pages are numbered in the upper right according to the best navigation conventions and intentions, I am lost somewhere in a sea of greyscale by the time I am into page 3 of 6. I can’t quite tell in what system of organization we shift from National offices to City and then go back to the State and then arrive at Los Angeles Community College Districts after those of the State Assembly. This keeps me hopping from hierarchy to hierarchy. Add to this that the overwhelming sameness of treatment has reduced the variety of categories to a single mode—like boxing a large collection of vivid butterfly species in little grey coffins on a morgue slab. Dullness has its effect—which is not to increase the motivation of the voter. With labyrinth level three we are tangled in the weeds.
From within the grey undifferentiated morass I am struggling to grasp the organizational structure of government. I jump and hover, focus on a trail and then have to change course to keep on track. City again? I thought I had turned the corner at Local.
Suddenly, I realize this is the garden of forking paths, a make-your-own-election adventure. The thrill of this realization provides a new frisson. I have underestimated my design colleagues in the civil service. This is experimental work. Conceptual design. Radical poetics. Now it makes sense and a whole Borgesian world begins to flower before my eyes.
Had I only realized at the outset that this labyrinthine structure was an expression of profoundly creative literary imagination I might have had more patience. Perhaps Ted Nelson might have been invoked, that distinguished inventor of Internet architecture. His visionary Xanadu project, never realized and always mythic, could have served as model with its endless links and hyperlinks tangled in their web of possibilities. Or, impossibilities. Three-and-four dimensional labyrinths could be enabled, a virtual world of emergent facets and unfolding universes in many dimensions.
Now I am able to see the ballot for what it is–a flattened field of hypertext, thick with choices and potential for quantum intervention. But this is also worrisome. I see that making any choice at all may have the same outcome as Erwin Schrödinger’s famous experiment and end up with my killing the cat. I haven’t the heart for that, and so, backtracking again and taking the high view, I decide, the best course of action is to follow the inspiration of that brave heroine of antiquity, Ariadne. I thread my way through the maze, measuring my degrees of lost-ness in the labyrinth, determined to find my way through to the final exit.
New anxieties arise. I am afraid I will refold the pages out of sequence or against the grain, worried that the ink of my fine point pen has not filled the entire area of the thirsty circles, or that the language of the propositions has tricked me once again into voting for what I would have utterly opposed had the double-triple-negatives of the statement not cancelled each other out: “This measure will repeal the objection that blocks the cancellation of the agreement entered into without consent….” What lies behind the jargon? What swims below the surface of the obfuscating language? What depth of deceit is masked by the bland design? I also worry that my ballot will mis-fire and feed out of sequence through whatever automated scanning device records the votes, clogging the mechanism in a mess of mangled paper. That is the image of the dysfunctional labyrinth, its conveyor belts snapped and dangling, the image of damaged democracy. I cannot afford to go there.
But managing the ballot with due diligence requires homework. Graphically banal, dishwater dull in tone with its bland sans-serif type, the document is equally flat rhetorically. Only with significant online searching can I find out who paid for the measures to appear, whose funding is behind which agenda, or which candidates have a record of corruption or abuse. I think of Borges again, and how his metaphoric imagination might have presented the conundrum of the ballot in vivid terms appropriate to the civic confusion it engenders. What possibilities–as yet un-thought–might arise under the influence of new technologies? If Dante had ever had to be on hold or go through an automated telephone system to get information about anything at all, his designs for Hell would have been far different. Imagine the cruel punishments bound up with endless delays and deferrals, transfers from one automatic exchange to another in an endless series of loops that results in a final buzz tone and disconnection.
Ultimately, I don’t want to think of this design as a form of graphic disenfranchisement, deliberately meant to interfere in the election process. After all, the sanctity of voting must be preserved by avoiding hype and keeping the ballot from screaming like an ad for cosmetic surgery or car sales. I’m backing off, letting go of my critical stance, realizing that the neutralizing quality of the design is effective in avoiding the virulent tone of political campaigns. Its dullness buffers the voter against exaggerated claims, outright lies, and other dubious practices. My ballot, now completed with its dark splotches of ink, no longer appears to be as bland and baffling as at the outset. In the end, like Ariadne, I can follow the thread of my decisions and have found my way through the labyrinth. If I feel lost, perhaps it is not on account of the ballot design that I find myself in the middle of a road in a dark wood of our collective making.
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How is it that the fundamental bureaucratic tool of democracy somehow manages to remain largely invisible to our eyes? Thank you for the ways in which you manage to make it suddenly appear in my field of vision, with all its angles, colors, structure, discourses ... I hope UX engineers redesigning government bureaucracy for the screen read this ...
During the pandemic, the state judge ruled that residents of Indiana have a right to vote, not a right to vote by mail. During the pandemic elderly people worked the polls and stood in line here. You need an ailment, not just a pandemic or a desire in order to vote by mail. 10,000 dollars and jail time for violating this. I wish I could vote by mail; especially if there is another pandemic.