The recently announced party registration numbers in California have pundits buzzing about the continuing growth of “No Party Preference” voters alongside the declining memberships in the Democrat and Republican parties. “Indie voters have growing clout in California elections” blares a KPCC headline, and reporter Sharon McNary goes on to list reasons ranging from online registration to the top two primary as reasons for NPP’s expanding ranks.

But what if the reason had as much to do with the design of the registration form as with registration reform? And what if the registration forms (both print and online) we’re using break with state statute in ways that promote NPP registration?

One of my first jobs was working in an industry that hardly exists anymore: business forms printing. You remember business forms? Those preprinted documents you used to run through something called a typewriter, or, if it was a continuous form, you put on the sprockets of a forms printer.

I may be the only candidate for California Secretary of State in our great history who has not only sold, but actually designed business forms. I know what makes for an easily understandable document, and what makes one needlessly complicated. This is, in fact a pertinent qualification for an office that may issue more business forms than any other state agency.

Like the paper voter registration form. Have you seen one lately? Here’s a link to my website with a photo of the LA County form (click to enlarge).

At a recent speaking engagement in the San Fernando Valley, one of the attendees approached me with a California registration card. She introduced herself as someone who has helped Californians register to vote for many years. “This form biases people towards registering No Party Preference,” she said. I admit I was skeptical, but upon examining the form, I found interesting design elements that could very well influence one’s choices…particularly in the area of party identification.

In form design there are ways to “nudge” an applicant towards focusing on certain areas (at best), or making certain decisions (at worst). Things like type size, bold face type, colored type, and colored shaded boxes (called “screening”) direct our eyes towards particular areas on a printed piece of paper. That’s why when you glance at the California Voter Registration form, your eye falls on several different areas: the red type, the black bold face type, and the four green shaded areas.

One spot that has black bold type set inside a screened box is under question 14: “Do you want to choose a political party preference?” Beneath the question, the shaded box contains its own choice in bold letters: “No Party Preference” with a following explanation, “No, I do not want to choose a political party preference. (If you choose this box, you may not be able to vote for some parties’ candidates at a primary election for U.S. President or party committee.)”

Next to this green box is a white box with six party preferences plus “Other” – all in plain black type.

This layout appears to contravene California’s state statute on how the NPP option is featured. In the California Elections Code Section 2151, we read this: “The voter registration card shall include a listing of all qualified political parties. As part of that listing, the voter registration card shall also contain an option that permits the affiant [registrant] to decline to disclose a party preference. This option shall be placed at the end [emphasis mine] of the listing of qualified political parties.”

Now I’m not accusing anyone at the Secretary of State’s office of intentionally trying to get Californians to register No Party Preference, but a rookie forms designer would know the current California voter registration form directs an applicant’s attention towards that decision – breaking both the word and the spirit of our Elections Code.

What’s the solution?

If you really wanted to have a “cleaner” form, one solution would be to turn “Question 14” into a statement: “Political Identification:”. Then, in the options, include “No Party Preference” alongside the other options. I’d even be OK with bold-facing that option.

Interestingly, the Online Voter Registration process also highlights a completely separate answer box for No Party Preference, leading the eye away from where the political parties are listed.

As I’ve said from the outset of my campaign, graphic design can play an incredibly important role in stimulating civic engagement. What we don’t want to see from the Secretary of State’s office is even the appearance of tilting the scales of participation towards one party…or no party.

A shorter original version of this essay posted on FlashReport.