After every election, particularly those won in landslide fashion, party activists bemoan low voter turnout. Voters are accused of being disinterested, lazy or apathetic. Campaigns are begun to goad us to the polls for the next election, often shaming us and blaming us for our party’s losses.
I want to challenge this notion that voters are apathetic. I want to further challenge the notion that the voting process — not to be confused with access to voting — is adequate to the task of fair and intelligent elections in the United States. Simply put, when access to voting is unimpeded, I contend that inadequate information about candidates and issues is the biggest hurdle to voter participation. People are not apathetic because they don’t care. Rather, people are too confused and ill-informed to feel comfortable making good choices.
This is not a partisan issue. This isn’t about a dearth of quality candidates for public office. This isn’t about the substance of political rhetoric. This is simply about the usability of political information. And about its availability.
What do I mean by usability? I have a professional background in user experience and taxonomy, having worked on both for a Fortune 50 retailer for several years. One of the critical guidelines of user-friendly design is this: “Don’t make me think!”
As an example, imagine you are shopping online. You need a dog collar. You browse to your favorite retail website. Now imagine that when you type in a search for “dog collar” you get no results. Or you get hundreds of results but only a handful seem to be actual dog collars. Or you get results that are poorly written, lack images, or have no visible way to purchase them. These are issues of usability.
Imagine that every time you went to McDonald’s, the entire list of items, while categorized similarly, were different. How easy would it be to find the entree you preferred? How likely would you be to return to McDonald’s?
“User-friendly design” means that the tool you use to accomplish a task (find a dog collar) should be intuitive to use and not create confusion about how to use it. The more confusion it creates, the less likely you are to succeed in your task. If you can’t complete the task with that tool, you will quickly stop using it. It doesn’t help you. It just gets in the way and pisses you off. What you really want is a dog collar, not the hassle of learning how to use an unfamiliar or overly complicated tool.
The discipline of user experience (UX) applies to almost everything, not just websites. It applies to the design of products. Apple pioneered it in personal computers. OXO pioneered it in the development of kitchen utensils. 22Netflix pioneered it in movie rentals and online streaming. You use the creations of UX every day, but you hardly notice them. They rarely make you “think.”
This is not a nefarious thing. It’s not meant to make you do something against your will or best interests. It’s meant to help make doing everyday things easier and simpler.
Consider going to buy a cheeseburger, for example. You’re in a rush, and want to drive through somewhere and get lunch. You choose McDonald’s.
When you drive up to McDonald’s drive-thru menu, there are approximately 17 “Extra Value Meals,” each a combination of a sandwich/salad/chicken pieces, fries and a drink. Why does McDonald’s do this? Why not list all the sandwiches, salads, chicken pieces, side orders, and drink options separately?
From a user experience perspective, the combinations are the most likely set of paired choices that customers will make. As a result, if they are accurate for users (you and me in the drive-thru line), we will make our choices faster. Otherwise, we would have to scan multiple points across the menu for each separate item; whereas when the “Extra Value Meal” menu is present, we simply identify that primary item (sandwich, salad, pieces of chicken) and know that ordering “#1” will suffice. No further scanning is necessary. In fact, as we are so often creatures of habit, we may never look past one or two spots on the menu over months of return visits to McDonald’s.
For McDonald’s franchisees and corporate this means less time for customers in line, quicker service, and more money. Because a customer finds the process almost “thoughtless,” it seems easier. It is easier, and you get what you want faster.
Now compare voting to buying an Extra Value Meal. As far as McDonald’s food goes, most of us know what we like. We’ve done the “research” hundreds of times, and we definitely have ordered at McDonald’s far more than we have ever voted. So if I ask you to look at McDonald’s drive-in menu, it probably won’t take you more than 30 seconds to make your order. An informed order, at that.
Our task is not simply to be herded through the polls, mindlessly mark a piece of paper, and get the hell out of there. Our task is to thoughtfully choose representatives and issues that we think are the most likely to improve our lives and the lives of others.
With that in mind, consider the ballot we have to work with when we vote. A ballot, like a menu, is a list of choices to help you perform a task. When you’re at the polls, how do you make choices on a list of candidates each election?
The organizing principle of a ballot is limited to three concepts:
1. Position — president, congress, judiciary, referendums, bond issues, etc.
2. Party — Democratic, Republican, Independent, write-in
3. Region — Local, national
“Position” is basic, and most similar to how a restaurant menu displays appetizers, entrees, side orders, drinks, and desserts. This is useful, of course, but very rudimentary. Very few people find this challenging or confusing.
“Party” is the “brand” of politics. You can vote for every candidate in one party (straight ticket options are available in some states). Every candidate — except for judges — has a party designation by their name on the ballot. Of course, in most cases, there are only two brands to choose from, and if you wanted to “order off the menu” your options are limited to independent presidential candidates or one or two write-in blanks. If this were your choice in burger restaurants, you would probably be fairly disappointed.
“Region” is also very basic. This is simply how the ballot distinguishes between national, statewide, countywide, and local positions/issues. Ordinarily, this is fairly clear on ballots, but the lack of party designations in some races (particularly judges) can create a lot of confusion. After all, did you research all of the judges and their backgrounds? Do you know who is most likely to favor judicial issues that matter most to you? Are they qualified? Are they even attempting to be objective and non-partisan?
Let’s return to our McDonald’s example. Given the paucity of disambiguating information on our ballots, if translated into our McDonald’s drive-thru menu, they might look like this:
Extra Value Meal #1 $5
Extra Value Meal #2 $5
Extra Value Meal #3 $5
Extra Value Meal #5 $6
Extra Value Meal #6 $2
Side Order $1.50
This is incomplete, useless information. It would send us elsewhere for our lunch in seconds.
Finally, consider how frequently we use the ballot.
Aside from presidential candidates and major Congressional campaigns, I am at a loss for information that will help me make an intelligent selection. The preponderance of one-sided information — and outright propaganda — online is disheartening and mostly useless if you want straight facts.
We usually vote every two to four years. Imagine if you saw a McDonald’s drive-thu menu only once every four years. How easy would it be to order? How much slower would it be for you to peruse the options? Imagine that every time you went to McDonald’s, the entire list of items, while categorized similarly, were different. How easy would it be to find the entree you preferred? How likely would you be to return to McDonald’s?
Obviously, unlike the consistency of items on the menu at a fast food restaurant, we cannot have the same candidates run for the same offices every year throughout our lives. So, to solve the issue of familiarity — who is on the ballot, what do they stand for, and how to easily ascertain this information — there has to be another option.
If the ballot is our sole source of information regarding candidates and issues, it becomes clear that there is very little convenience or user-friendliness to it. Our task is not simply to be herded through the polls, mindlessly mark a piece of paper, and get the hell out of there. Our task is to thoughtfully choose representatives and issues that we think are the most likely to improve our lives and the lives of others. Clearly, the ballot is a rudimentary outline of smaller tasks, ill-defined and meaningless outside of a larger context of information.
While the possibility that our ballots might someday contain summaries of each candidates’ platforms is unlikely, if purely because it would slow down polls, that doesn’t mean we can’t address usability in the voting process. The primary issue is this: How do we make the research of candidates and issues intuitive? How do we make this research convenient?
The sheer mention of “research” probably discourages almost anyone from wanting to vote. I would argue again that this isn’t because people are apathetic, lazy or disinterested. In most cases, if something isn’t easy and available immediately, sure, we’re likely to de-prioritize it in favor of simpler activities. When it comes to voting, by contrast, I believe people do want to know who and what they are voting for. Only the most cynical and fatalistic people abstain from voting or simply go in and randomly mark their ballots. Most of us have strong opinions about issues, even if we can’t always articulate them. What we need is a simple summary of choices, succinct pros and cons, etc., in order to accurately carve out our political identities. As a voter who does attempt to research candidates in news articles and online voter guides, I admit that the effort is often discouraging and fruitless. Aside from presidential candidates and major Congressional campaigns, I am at a loss for information that will help me make an intelligent selection. The preponderance of one-sided information — and outright propaganda — online is disheartening and mostly useless if you want straight facts. Voter-guides you can trust can be difficult to sort from those that are unashamedly partisan. There simply isn’t a single source of accessible information — non-partisan information — about every candidate and issue.
That is exactly what we should create.
Imagine, in the months prior to an election, if each of us could go to a single website, identify our state and county, and get a sample ballot as well as a non-partisan summary of all the candidates and issues. Imagine if that summary identified where candidates stood on their signature issues in simple, spin-free language. For example, if Bob Smith is running for the House of Representatives for North Carolina, and if the majority of his campaign speeches and debate points are about eliminating the minimum wage and repealing the Affordable Care Act, his summary should be simple and straightforward:
Bob Smith (Republican Party)
• Eliminate minimum wage
• Repeal the Affordable Care Act
Mr. Smith’s opponent, Ronald Henderson, might as easily be summarized as follows:
Ronald Henderson (Democratic Party)
• Raise minimum wage to $15
• Make college tuition free by raising taxes on millionaires
This kind of transparency would provide voters exactly what they need to make informed decisions. It follows user experience precepts to simplify the process of making complicated choices. It makes it intuitive.
Imagine, in the months prior to an election, if each of us could go to a single website, identify our state and county, and get a sample ballot as well as a non-partisan summary of all the candidates and issues. Imagine if that summary identified where candidates stood on their signature issues in simple, spin-free language.
Why we haven’t already done this is a discussion for another day. I suspect it is because partisan politics and the allure of getting and maintaining power is too often a temptation to obfuscate what our representatives actually intend to do with our country. The axiom that power, once given, is seldom relinquished too often proves true.
That risk, that persistent threat that we can lose our influence in our own government, is why it is so important to improve not just access to voting, but the voting process itself. After the next election, and every election to come, we should not hear ourselves being accused of not caring enough to vote. We should hear, as every user experience designer does each day, how well things went, and how we can continue to make things even better, even more intuitive, even more convenient and easy. Think of it: If you want something to get better, like a smart phone, do you stop improving it after the first model? No. You pat yourself on the back, and then start planning version 2.0.
Our goal, if we want every American to vote intelligently for their own interests, should be to embrace that philosophy in how we manage elections. What we all need is clear, easy-to-find, succinct, non-partisan information about candidates and issues on the ballot. Given that, and unimpeded access to voting, we make it possible for every voter to “not have to think” and actually perform a very thoughtful and critical role in our country.