As an American, I am very aware of the election on November 3rd even though I live in Britain where the reporting on the event is lower than if I lived back home. In fact, I am voraciously consuming the political news, gossip, polling data and punditry available online. Emotions are running high on both sides of America’s political divide but one thing all voters agree on is this is a very consequential election. This has motivated voters like never before, as judged by the rate of early voting(this will open in a new window), a great result for fans of democracy.
I also naturally look at the voting process through the lens of user experience since that is the focus of my company User Vision. I am very aware of the potential for user interfaces and processes to be misunderstood and used incorrectly, as we have seen in countless usability tests of websites, software and other products. Observing and learning from these mistakes is wonderfully instructive and we apply these lessons in the ongoing improvements of products especially during their development through an iterative user-centred design process.
Researching the UK voting experience
The process of voting presents many user experience (UX) challenges. I got to see this first hand during an in-depth study that we conducted for the United Kingdom Electoral Commission looking specifically at how voters complete ballots and how seemingly small design aspects can have a big impact on how people interpret and interact with their ballot.
We looked at all aspects of voting including the ballot papers, polling station notices and materials for postal voting. This was done through a series of usability tests with 45 participants conducting a simulated voting exercise in different parts of the UK. Our study was conducted in partnership with Caroline Jarrett of Effortmark, and our final 50-page research report is still available on the Electoral Commission website.(this will open in a new window)
Our report contained dozens of findings and recommendations covering the potential impact of various aspects of the ballot design, from the layout, the party logos and descriptions, slogans and the use of second languages (Welsh). All of these potentially impacted whether the intended vote cast was successful and the voter’s perception of the process. Even the electoral system itself can affect behaviour, with most people expecting a single ‘first past the post’ vote although some elections require a preference rank ordering of options, especially in proportional representation systems.
We found the greatest risk of errors occurred with postal voting because there were many tasks required in addition to filling in the ballot form. These included completing a postal voting statement with date of birth and signature, sometimes with witness verification, and some basic origami involving various envelopes for posting these materials back. These processes, designed to ensure ballot secrecy by keeping voting statements separate from ballot papers, greatly added to the potential for error.
User experience in the US voting process
Although there are some differences in the voting process and ballot designs between the UK and the United States, there are many lessons from our report that are relevant for the upcoming US elections. This is especially true for the mail-in ballots which have gained so much attention in this election cycle due to COVID-19 discouraging many from voting in person where they may have to stand in line for hours. To learn more about the pitfalls of postal voting, this detailed article(this will open in a new window) by the New York Times dives into the types of mistakes which resulted in 2% of ballots being rejected in primaries earlier in the year, and which may recur in November.
Indeed the complicated and precise process for completing mail-in ballots has introduced a new term to our election lexicon, the ‘naked ballots’(this will open in a new window) which are being highlighted especially in the important swing state of Pennsylvania through some eye-catching awareness campaigns(this will open in a new window).
There are also some pure contextual and human factors aspects that could impact how likely the voter is to have a good experience or correctly cast the vote they intended.
- There is no standard design – Most of my British friends are amazed when I explain that there is no single ballot design or common voting process for all of the US. The date of the election and the names of the presidential candidates apply nationally, although even in that respect there is variance as some states require that all ballots are received by November 3rd, while others accept those simply postmarked by then. Other state and jurisdiction variations occur due to candidates that are relevant for only that state (e.g. Governors, Senators and Representatives) and the inclusion of local referendum questions on specific governance issues. California typically has the most of these and this year they have 12(this will open in a new window) on topics from suffrage to rent control to taxation. Other variations include the date that early voting starts, the conditions that entitle someone to vote by mail, whether witnesses are required for postal votes and whether you are allowed to correct a mistake on your ballot if notified by the electoral board.
- Voting is an infrequent, emotive and unfamiliar task - Voting is not something we do often. Many Americans reserve their civic participation to once every four years even though there are usually many more opportunities during mid-terms elections (every 2 years) and for local and state representatives. The frequency and familiarity of a task makes a difference in most user’s comfort performing the task. Think of two tasks that are done at vastly different frequencies even on the same system, such as navigating to an episode of a show on Netflix as compared to setting up a new payment method for your Netflix subscription. Postal voting is even less familiar to many and millions may do this for the very first time during this election cycle. Even emotions can play a part if you are so keen to vote for a candidate that you overlook reading the instructions properly – something that we saw during our voting research.
Ticking the box for good electoral process design
Thankfully the importance of applying good design to the interfaces and process of voting has been recognised. This may be in part due to the high profile, some say notorious, Butterfly Ballot(this will open in a new window) used in one particular Florida county that was a focus of the 2000 US Presidential Election. There are now influential and active organisations such as the Center for Civic Design(this will open in a new window) which helps to improve the voting experience and the design of voting materials. Their extensive range of guidelines covers all stages of the voting process, including election department websites, signposting at polling stations, voting from home and accessibility in voting. If you are in a position to influence the design of voting materials or processes, check out their Field Guide to Ensuring Voter Intent(this will open in a new window).
As for me, I have cast my vote already by emailing the scanned ballot and other materials back to my home town in Massachusetts and I even checked that it has been received. So I should simply rest easy now but I know I’ll be nervously watching the process in these final days and crossing my fingers for the outcome I want. I expect to be slightly distracted and sleep deprived on November 4th when the dust starts to settle and results are hopefully declared.
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