It's Time to Redesign the UX of Voting

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By Ian Campbell, Head of Experience Design, Phenomenon

This election season has smashed a lot of precedents, from the candidates we’ve chosen to the way they campaign to win our votes. As the polls across the states open and we enter the final week of this 58th presidential election, we are also seeing an increased focus on the actual voting process. From recently brought up security concerns regarding vulnerabilities of the voting machines, down to the actual design of the voting booths, it’s clear that the way Americans are voting is in dire need of change.

Hacking fears aside, both political parties continue to struggle with encouraging people to come out and vote, yet this is one area that could be significantly improved with the proper and creative use of design. So many aspects of our lives have been profoundly improved by UX, design and technology that it’s almost mind-blowing that those changes have not been brought to the way we vote. Smartly designed booths could not only help educate and inspire more voters, but could have a direct effect on boosting civic engagement and turning voting into a more enjoyable process for all generations.

Here are three simple ways in which design and technology can come together to inform and engage voters, while improving the overall experience:

Let professionals create a central template for ballot design.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “several hundred thousand votes were not counted in the 2008 and 2010 elections because of voter mistakes, in some cases affecting the outcome of critical contests.” These mistakes frequently come as a result of confusing, poorly designed ballots and touchscreens, which incorporate difficult-to-read typography or bad layouts that lead voters to choose too many candidates, or too few. These errors disproportionately negate the votes of the elderly, as well as low income, minority and disabled voters.

While the intricacies of typeface selection and layouts may not seem like important issues in a race as superheated as this one, let’s remember back to the year 2000 when poor design did in fact play a huge role in deciding the presidency. Unfortunately, not a whole lot of progress has been made since then, as ballot design is still left to county officials - not designers - who create ballots based on state guidelines, which are rarely built on any accepted design principles. That’s right, in 2016 – a time in which every frivolous iPhone app and packaged snack food is poured over by a team of UX designers before launch – the documents that determine the fate of our democracy are created by a scattershot collection of local officials with zero design credentials. The federal government must take steps towards establishing clear, easy to follow guidelines created by experienced professional designers that can be used in local and federal elections. Organizations such as AIGA have already taken steps to push the government towards improving the design of election materials and other government paperwork, but until an overarching set of guidelines is established, voters will still be confronted by hard to decipher ballots and screens designed by bureaucrats. 

Build candidate information into the process itself.

By now, the expectation is that the vast majority of voters have a pretty good idea of where the two main candidates stand on the issues. But what about the “down-ballot” nominees that take many voters by surprise each year? Most voters don’t give much thought to their picks for smaller local elections in advance, and by the time they’ve stepped into the booth, it’s too late. Voting the party line is the go-to solution for most, but it’s no replacement for an informed vote, especially as the country grows more polarized and less moderate.

There is a lot of room for improvement to be made in the arena of voter education, and some organizations, such as Ballot Ready, are making an effort to educate voters about all their local candidates. Still, little is being done to reach voters where they are - the polling station. Beyond the candidate info pamphlets that are handed out at some stations, we could be leveraging technology to guide voters in their choices. Interactive touch screens on iPads or in booths that lay out the nominees and their positions could be available to those waiting in line, and could incorporate short videos from the candidates themselves as a final pitch to voters.

Engage voters through technology - and not just to win their votes.

There’s been a lot of talk around digital voting and how susceptible it may be to fraud and hacking, but there are a lot of other, less risky ways we could be using technology to connect with voters. A nonpartisan voting app could allow users to simulate voting in their district in advance of the Election Day, giving them a chance to familiarize themselves with the candidates and the process before arriving at the polling station. The app would integrate with social media platforms to verify and announce that you voted, keep you up to date on events and rallies for your preferred candidates through the election cycle, give voters a way to provide feedback to candidates on the issues, and encourage voters to turn out for smaller local races. It could also remind younger voters to keep their registrations up to date, as a third of people in their 20s move at least once a year, making it difficult for them to know where to find their polling place.

These simple design changes can dramatically affect peoples' desire to vote, and dare I say could even get people excited about coming out and voting for their candidates. And while the relationship between the ballot box, design and technology may take a long time to work out from a security perspective, that doesn’t mean we can’t integrate smart UX design and technology around the voting experience now, and make our civic duty that much more enriching. Especially given that this particular November 8th may go down in history as one of the most widely anticipated dates in history of our voting.