Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Official Election Sources Don't Give Voters What They Want, Study Finds

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, April 3 2013

L.A. County Elections Website

A recently released study of election websites concludes that where site design is concerned, elections officials are from Mars and voters are from Venus.

Dana Chisnell, a researcher who specializes in the "user experience" of voting, led a team that examined 147 county election websites from around the country in the run-up to the November 2012 elections. The researchers conducted a voter survey and then 41 remote usability sessions with volunteers, looking at the questions they had about voting and how they were able to find information on official voting websites.

Chisnell's conclusion is that election officials aren't offering what voters need.

"Election officials see elections as a process," Chisnell said, "from registering to vote, learning what's on the ballot, to finding the polling place and getting to the polling place."

"For voters," she continued, "what they care about is why they're voting."

Voters first want to know who's on the ballot, and only then are concerned about how to register and how to get to the polls. They approach the various steps of the voting process in a completely different order. Voters want to know "who's on the ballot." After that, they want to know how to vote in person, what the deadlines are, and — even in states without a voter ID law — what kind of identification they'll need at the polling place.

"They had heard so much about voter ID," Chisnell said, "that they wanted something definitive — 'No, you don't need one,' or 'yes, you do.'"

Chisnell's report recommends that officials redesign their websites to focus on answering these sorts of questions first, and speaking in the language of voters rather than officialese terms spelled out in places like the Help America Vote Act. Websites should clearly address questions like "Who's on the ballot?" "Who are my representatives?" "What is my district?" "Where do I vote?" and "Do I need ID?"

Officials also need to concern themselves with more technical questions like what keywords to use in website metadata, Chisnell says. Because they often don't do that now, people using a search engine to find out about an upcoming election are often likely to encounter the website of an advocacy group, interest group or a political party before they see the county's presumably more impartial information. To counter this, elections officials need to optimize.

"Elections has become more and more of an IT job," she said.

Her report's statistics bear this out: Of 3,057 counties or county-equivalents, her team found, 966 did not have an election website. However, 94 percent of Americans live in a county that does have an election website.

Elections officials agree that how they structure information online is becoming increasingly important as the web becomes a bigger and bigger part of daily life.

"The recommendation of fewer words and more images [or] simpler text is particularly valuable," said Dean Logan, registrar-recorder and county clerk for Los Angeles County. County officials are planning to revise their website, he said.

"I think it's the fastest-growing source of information out there [for voters]," he explained.

That truism has a notable exception, according to Chisnell's research: Minority voters, she found, are less likely to have an informative website to rely on.

"Taking apart the website data we saw, just in terms of information richness on websites for mostly minority counties, there were fewer items on the page," Chisnell said.

"We're wondering if there is some kind of information desert" when it comes to minority voters, she said later on in a conversation with techPresident.

She added that it wasn't clear what the cause was, and there was no indication that there was a correlation with county size or resources. One possibility, she suggested, is that those election departments are more likely to communicate with voters through other means, like outreach programs or town-hall meetings.

It is important to reach out to voters through multiple channels, says Tammy Patrick, federal compliance officer for the elections department in Maricopa County, Ariz. That's because there are still many voters who do not have reliable Internet or smartphone access. And through projects like the Voting Information Project, search engines like Google and Bing can incorporate official data into search results — both removing steps for the voter and taking user interface concerns out of the hands of elections officials.

That said, she called the research findings "eye opening."

The research, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, comes at an opportune time: the Obama administration recently announced the formation of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, assembled to address the many problems that voters reported with long lines and confusing information from officials.

Chisnell's research will be published as one installment in an ongoing series of field guides for election officials later this year.

News Briefs

RSS Feed wednesday >

In Mexico, A Wiki Makes Corporate Secrets Public

Earlier this year the Latin American NGO Poder launched Quién Es Quién Wiki (Who's Who Wiki), a corporate transparency project more than two years in the making. The hope is that the platform will be the foundation for a citizen-led movement demanding transparency and accountability from businesses in Mexico. Data from Quién Es Quién Wiki is already helping community activists mobilize against foreign companies preparing to mine the mountains of the Sierra Norte de Puebla.

GO

thursday >

NY Study Shows How Freedom of Information Can Inform Open Data

On New York State's open data portal, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation has around 40 data resources of varying sizes, such as maps of lakes and ponds and rivers, bird conservation areas and hiking trails. But those datasets do not include several data resources that are most sought after by many New York businesses, a new study from advocacy group Reinvent Albany has found. Welcome to a little-discussed corner of so-called "open government"--while agencies often pay lip service to the cause, the data they actually release is sometimes nowhere close to what is most wanted. GO

Responding to Ferguson, Activists Organize #NMOS14 Vigils Across America In Just 4 Days

This evening peaceful crowds will gather at more than 90 locations around the country to honor the victims of police brutality, most recently the unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on Saturday. A moment of silence will begin at 20 minutes past 7 p.m. (EST). The vigils are being organized almost entirely online by the writer and activist Feminista Jones (@FeministaJones), with help from others from around the country who have volunteered to coordinate a vigil in their communities. Organizing such a large event in only a few days is a challenge, but in addition to ironing out basic logistics, the National Moment of Silence (#NMOS14) organizers have had to deal with co-optation, misrepresentation, and Google Docs and Facebook pages that are, apparently, buckling under traffic.

GO

More