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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.