Whitney Quesenbery on Making Voting Information Work for Voters

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[Image courtesy of uxmatters]

My friend and colleague Whitney Quesenbery had a fantastic post the other day at civicdesigning.org focusing on how to make election information useful to voters:

Every election department (and many advocacy groups) create flyers and small booklets to help voters learn about elections. But when we looked for guidelines for good communication with voters, we found very little. There were some political science and social psychology experiments that measured the impact of get-out-the-vote campaigns, but there was little about what questions voters have, and how to answer those questions well.

As a companion to the research on county election websites, we did a study of how new voters used election information booklets.

We recruited people who had voted for the first time in the 2008 election or later. Our participants were young people, recently naturalized citizens, and people with lower literacy. As new voters, we hoped that they would remember their first experiences clearly and would still have questions about elections.

We worked with a selection of voter education materials that we thought were pretty good: clearly written, attractively designed, with good information.

  • + League of Women Voters: VOTE (sometimes it takes a 4-letter word)
 Trifold brochure, with general information about voting
  • + San Francisco: A Voter’s Guide to San Francisco Elections 
Tri-fold brochure with information about voting in that city
  • + Maryland: Voting in Maryland
 8-page small booklet with information about the 2011-2012 elections
  • + Oregon: Voting in Oregon Guide
 12-page small booklet, mailed to each voter as instructions with their ballot
  • + Leon County Florida: Official Election Guide 
12-page large booklet, mailed to each voter, including a generic sample ballot

We asked our participants to choose two of them to read, marking any sections they thought were particularly good or particularly confusing. And then we talked about what they read.

They had many of the same questions as the participants in the web site study:

  • – what’s on the ballot
  • – where do I go vote
  • – how do I get an absentee ballot

Many other questions were about the basic mechanics of voting, from eligibility and ID requirements, to finding their polling place, to the details of how to mark their ballot.

An ideal guide helps voters plan and act

When we sorted out all the data, we weren’t surprised to find that the overriding concern was being able to act on the information. That fits the definition of plain language: information voters can find, understand, and use.

These less experienced voters wanted specific instructions that would let them vote with confidence. For example, they weren’t sure how long your voter registration “lasts” or even that they might have options for voting, not only on Election Day, but in early voting or by mail. They liked the confirmation and reassurance of seeing information they already knew.

Use the space on the cover for useful information. The cover is not just decorative, but should communicate:

  • The geographical area covered
  • The elections and dates included
  • The type of information
  • The organization responsible
  • Contact information

Start with a roadmap. A table of contents or a simple list of the main topics helps voters understand what the booklet covers. For example, the Leon County Voters Guide opens with the announcement that there are “3 ways to vote.” Participants used this to make sure they read about all the options.

1 page : 1 topic. 1 topic : 1 heading. Clear headings, starting new topics on a new page, and a good structure for the topics mean that someone flipping quickly through the booklet doesn’t miss anything.

Use visuals to reinforce meaning. Icons, instructional illustrations, maps, and images of ballots were all helpful. They are particularly important for people who don’t read well.

Be specific about dates and deadlines. Formulas like “You must register at least 21 days before the election” forced them to solve a problem instead of just telling them. Chronological lists and calendar layouts both worked well.

Speak the voters’ language. We can’t say this enough. Elections are filled with specialized terminology that voters may not know. Here are some of the words that participants flagged as confusing:

  • Canvassing board
  • Contests
  • Legislation
  • Primary election
  • Provisional ballot
  • Remedial
  • Unaffiliated
  • Designate an agent
  • Close of registrations
  • Request guidelines

Include information about how to vote. Help voters know what to expect, no matter where they vote. Be sure to cover all the steps from signing in and the poll book to marking and casting the ballot.

As one participant put it:

“The instructions page is good. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t like to make mistakes. And in no unclear terms, they say this is how you do it, and this is what you will see.”

That’s a good goal for any voter guides or election information.

Thanks to Whitney for sharing these insights, which can (and should!) be a guide for any office seeking to help voter’s with their hero’s journey at the polls.

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