North Carolina’s absentee ballot envelope is one of the most complicated in the country, and this year, the state asked the Center for Civic Design for help in overhauling it. The assignment went to design researcher Christopher Patten, a former architect.

The process took much of May and June and involved more than 10 mock-ups and a lot of back-and-forth with state and county officials and their legal teams.

“You have to understand all the requirements pretty deeply before you can begin to suggest any changes,” Patten said. “This is not about just making something look pretty.”

The original resembled part of an income tax form, with no particular focal point, and with fat paragraphs of legalese and many places for signatures and other information. A shouty red felony fraud warning sat on top like a very bitter cherry.

It was, he said diplomatically, “a particularly tough cookie.”

Patten began the redesign process by looking at the envelope from the perspective of a new voter who’d never seen it before.

“The first thing I saw was that if I did something wrong, I could commit a crime,” he said, which is the opposite of the goal of making voting an easier, more inviting experience.

Next he noticed the extensive witness requirements — North Carolina is one of seven states as of Tuesday that require at least one witness to sign a voter’s ballot — and wondered, would people even know what a witness is? Or a notary?

Next, he said, his eyes moved into the center section, and he completely missed the line at the bottom left that requires a voter’s signature — a catastrophic mistake, ballot-wise.

He looked for a key that would tell him where to start and guide him through the steps. There was none.

Then he wondered why the state was collecting all this information. And what was the space for a bar code label — was that something he needed to provide or print out? Where was it?

The second absentee ballot request (in case of a runoff) line in the lower right — another quirk of North Carolina election law — threw him as well.

“I'm like, ‘I thought this was the absentee envelope. Is there another absentee thing that I'm missing? Is this the wrong form entirely?’ And then I just kind of gave up after that,” he said.

After he identified the problems, he imagined what the ideal experience would be, and he worked with state elections officials to get as close as possible to that experience within the constraints of the law.

He was lucky, he said, because the state allowed much of the legalese to be shortened and rewritten in plain language. And he caught a break with the timing: This year, the state will require only one witness, no notary needed.

Using a Center for Civic Design template as his base, he decided to flip the envelope sideways and created a visual hierarchy that leads voters through each step. The most prominent features are the most important: the signature lines for the voter and the witness.

He changed a long, dense paragraph describing witness criteria into a list of short, digestible bullet points. Red is out, bold is in.

He moved the runoff absentee ballot request to a small check box on the flap, along with other less critical parts that nonetheless are required by law, such as that felony line.

He also included a handy checklist so voters could make sure they’d completed everything before they sealed the envelope, a final step in making the tough cookie easier to chew.