UX Design Principles and Voting: Part 2

January 22nd, 2019

Recently, we took a look at some of the problems facing US elections from the perspective of UX design. Part 1 focused on some of the actual mechanics of the voting process at the polls themselves. Confusing ballots and poorly designed polling places often combine to make voting an unpleasant experience for citizens hoping to participate in the democratic process. While these problems are immediate, they are ultimately short-term obstacles that can be overcome with a bit of (albeit unnecessary) forethought and patience.

But there are other problems that are larger in scope and have a much greater impact on turnout and engagement in the long run. Identifying solutions for these problems is much more difficult and politically charged. While UX design principles have addressed some of these issues in other countries, it remains to be seen if such solutions will gain widespread support in the US anytime soon.

Problem #3: Voter Registration

One area of US elections that should immediately jump out as a problem for any UX designer is the voter registration process. Specifically, registration is set up as an “opt-in” process. While US citizens gain the right to vote at age 18, they must actively register in order to cast a ballot in any federal, state, or local election. From a UX standpoint, this system creates a significant impediment to the experience of voting. It means that potential voters must go through an additional, sometimes complicated, step in order to engage in the political process, making it more likely that some people will decide not to engage at all.

According to census data, about 70 percent of eligible US voters were actually registered to vote in 2016. By way of comparison, peer democracies like Australia, Germany, and Canada all had much higher registration levels. Australian voting is perhaps best known for being compulsory, but the country’s 96 percent registration rate is due more to aggressive campaigns by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to drive registration and keep voter rolls updated. In addition to registration outreach, the AEC also uses efforts like automatically registering citizens who provide an address to other government agencies and allowing 16 and 17 year-olds to “pre-register,” which ensures they will already be on the voter rolls when they turn 18.

Canada’s 92.7 percent registration rate is made possible through Elections Canada, a federal election agency that aggregates voter data and automatically updates registration in local and provincial voter rolls. A Canadian voter can move from Toronto to Vancouver, for instance, and not have to take any action to update their registration. Some provinces are even more proactive. Quebec, for instance, automatically adds all 18-year olds in its health insurance agency’s system to their local voter rolls. Close cooperation between national and local authorities is also largely responsible for Germany’s 91 percent registration.

From a UX standpoint, these countries are committed to making it easier for citizens to register. In the US, however, the burden of registration falls almost entirely upon citizens. While proponents of this approach argue that people should have to make a proactive choice to register, critics counter that education surrounding registration is sorely lacking. Many Americans do not know how to register, what information they need to register (which can vary by state), or aren’t aware if they’re even registered in the first place.

If this last point sounds obvious, consider the controversial Ohio law that removed anyone who didn’t participate in two federal election cycles and failed to return a confirmation form from the voter rolls (the law was upheld by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2018). With many states passing laws that require additional action to even keep their voting active, the UX design of registration doesn’t seem likely to improve at the national level anytime soon.

Problem #4: Election Scheduling

Since 1845, US presidential elections have been held on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November, a day that was later adopted for US Congressional elections in 1875. The rationale for this date had a lot to do with life in 19th century America, but status quo bias and tradition have kept it there for well into the 21st century.

From a UX standpoint, there are all kinds of problems with scheduling election day during the week. Most people work on Tuesday, and employers are under no obligation to permit employees to go to the polls during working hours. School is still in session in November, so any parents who want to vote before or after work must accommodate children in some way. And holding elections on a single day ensures that lots of people will be showing up at polls that, in many cases, aren’t equipped to accommodate so many people.

Fortunately, there as been more progress on this UX challenge than on registration. In 35 states, early voting days have allowed people to pick a time to cast their ballot that’s more convenient for their schedule, sometimes even on the weekend. While there have been some efforts to move election day itself to the weekend or to at least make it a national holiday, little progress seems to have been made on this front. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union have come up with novel solutions to send digital reminders to people to go vote as election day approaches, but a more wide-ranging notification system may do more to push people to make plans for getting to the polls (or to register).

Voting by mail has proven popular as well, although only 28 states permit residents to do so without an excuse (such as being out-of-state on voting day). Three states (Colorado, Oregon, and Washington) conduct all national elections by mail, forgoing in-person voting altogether. Unfortunately, mail-in ballots cause a bit of a problem when it comes to actually tabulating votes. The 2018 Congressional elections generated quite a bit of anxiety because many western states allow citizens to postmark mail-in ballots by election day, which meant that many votes could not be counted until several days after the election.

This dizzying array of options calls to mind the same UX problem plaguing ballot design: the complete lack of uniformity. A voter moving from one state to another close to election day could find themselves facing a problem of needing to update their registration (which must often be done weeks or months in advance of an election), not knowing the options available for casting their vote, and having to decode a confusing ballot.

From a UX standpoint, US elections are in desperate need of improvement. Multiple conflicting systems, veto points, and opt-in requirements have come together to keep the US election turnout hovering around 55 percent. Mapping the entire voting process as customer journey would be an ideal starting place to identify the most significant pain points for the average voter and start a valuable conversation about how to address those issues to make voting as smooth and efficient as possible.

Unfortunately, political considerations about which interests would benefit most from changes often stand as an obstacle to implementing solutions that would make it easier for American citizens to exercise their Constitutional right to vote. With election laws being challenged in legislative houses and courtrooms alike, political leaders and activists would do well to consider how UX design could benefit the democratic process.

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