The Internet has increasingly become the main source of information for many Americans. Indeed, many errands we once accomplishedwith a car or a postage stamp are now done simply with a few clicks of the mouse. As Americans have grown more dependent upon sites such as Amazon and Netflix, it stands to reason that they are also increasingly more likely to seek out information regarding their civic duties using the Internet.
Because of this ever-growing dependence upon the Web, it is more important than ever that government institutions engage voters online. While analysts, politicians, and many others have been busy discussing online voting for years, few have taken stock of where state governments are right now when it comes to communicating with voters online. If Internet voting ever does become commonplace in the American electoral landscape, it is only logical that it would come after other necessary steps in the voting process like Internet registration and Internet absentee applications. Before any of those technological advances in the voting process, it makes sense that a state must first determine how to properly communicate information online and create logical ways to access the functionality the state already enlists. In the spirit of calls for what Heather Gerken has termed a “Democracy Index” of how well states run elections, this post attempts to survey states’ online voter information sites to assess where things stand.
This study examines each state’s main elections webpage to determine its usefulness to the average voter. The goal is to determine the ease or difficulty with which that voter could find vital information on his or her state’s elections website. It is important to distinguish certain characteristics of a state’s voting system from the state’s website. This study does not seek to analyze a state’s use of online voting or vote by mail (among others). Rather, the goal is to determine how easily voters can get the information they need. For the most part, the study uses quantitative measures—namely, how many clicks of the mouse it takes to find important information. Along with these measurements is a more qualitative measurement used sparingly to examine whether that process is intuitive. (You might be able to come across voter registration information in two clicks, but often only providentially).
The nine categories tested were:
- Number of clicks to register*
- Whether the state has online registration@
- Number of clicks to an absentee ballot application*
- Number of clicks to an individual’s voter information*
- Number of clicks to information regarding photo ID at the polls*
- What numbered “hit” the website is on Google #
- Number of clicks to an election calendar*
- Number of clicks to Help America Vote Act information*
- Whether the site operates in other languages
*Wherever a category tested the number of clicks to certain information, the study looked for the fewest possible clicks to that information. Exceptions to this rule were made if a completely non-intuitive route to the information was found with fewer necessary steps. Situations may arise where the study failed to determine the fewest number of clicks. Those situations, may, however, be indicative of the website’s failure to make the links logical and clear.
# While the website’s placement among Google hits is not necessarily a factor over which the state has control, it remains an important measurement of how easily a voter can find the site and pertinent information.
@ Whether a voter could submit voter registration online is not at issue here (as it is very rare). Instead, this category measures whether a voter can fill out the voter registration form online by answering a series of simple questions, eliminating the complexities of the registration form.
Best and worst—What’s out there?
The range of quality of state elections websites is broad. Some states, like Arizona, have attractive websites that provide the voter with easy access to important information. The site limits the amount of information given to the voter on the main page through the use of seven links on the main page. These links could be more attractive through the use of buttons, like those seen across the top of North Carolina’s State Board of Elections site or in Ohio’s Voter Services page. Unfortunately, North Carolina’s website is a little low in functionality. A potential voter would have to make three clicks of the mouse to download registration forms, to download an absentee ballot application, or to find out personal voter information. Compare this to Georgia’s website, where a voter can begin filling out a registration form through a series of simple questions with just two clicks (both linked by large attractive buttons). Similarly, a voter can find out important voter information with just one click of the mouse on the centrally located My Voter Page (MVP) button. Here, a voter can find a wealth of information, such as poll location, registration or absentee status, or a sample ballot of an upcoming election.
Compare any of these sites with Vermont’s, and you will quickly see the full range of websites. Contrast Vermont’s voter page to the Vote Missouri page, and the power of buttons, color choices, and limited links becomes fully apparent. For a quick lesson in the importance of limiting the amount of text on a page, take a quick look at Connecticut’s Elections and Voting site (no you weren’t accidentally linked to Connecticut’s web directory. That is the real site!) and compare that to Arkansas’s VoteNaturally.org (granted, this is not the state’s main page for elections).
These are but a few examples and comparisons meant to draw attention to the choices made when a state creates its elections and voting websites. For data for all the state elections websites, click here. For the full ranking, click here.
Seven Steps to a Better State Elections Website:
- Use Buttons: Rather than relying on long lists of links, elections and voter sites should make use of attractive buttons. These buttons draw the viewers attention to the link, are easier to click, and often force the website creator to limit the links to the truly important few. Examples of the use of buttons can be seen in the websites for New York, Texas, and North Carolina.
- Allow voters to fill out registration forms online: Like any government form, voter registration forms can be confusing and difficult to complete Highly functional websites allow voters to answer simple questions in a step-by-step process that will provide them with a completed form and sometimes the proper address to send it to. Many states use the online method. For a full list, view the data for this study and look under “Register online?”.
- Limit links on main page: Elections websites contain incredible amounts of information (hopefully). However important this information may be to some voters and researchers, it is probably not that important to most of the sites’ visitors. Is it really necessary that much of Rhode Island’s main page is devoted to the Board of Elections Commissioners? States should look to states like Arizona or Nebraska for tips on limiting the deluge of information o their main pages.
- Order links by importance—not alphabetical order: The letter “V”, as in voter or voting, comes late in the alphabet. As such, states such as New Mexico and Wyoming, which order the links on the left-hand side of the page by alphabetical order rather than by usefulness or importance place links to “Hatch Act Information” or “Cost of Recount/Recheck Proceedings” above those of voter registration information.
- Create a separate voter page: Often, the best sites are those that enlist the use of a separate voter page. Websites such as VoTexas, Vote Missouri, and Arkansas’s VoteNaturally demonstrate good examples of separate voter pages that eliminate confusion created when elections websites contain links to other state divisions (as in Wisconsin).
- Allow voter to access all information in one place: A powerful tool of these websites is the capacity to allow voters to quickly verify their personal voter status. With that in mind, it is not difficult to place all of that information in one place. Voters should be allowed to check their registration and absentee ballot status, find their polling place, and view upcoming election dates and sample ballots all in one place simply by typing in their information. Georgia provides the closest example but fails to include certain information for unknown reasons.
- Avoid use of pdfs: When important information can be given through a link within the website, the information should be given in that way. When sites provide information in pdf form, they tend to serve as a temptation to give too much information. Also, information presented within the website allows the state to continue to use the buttons and themes present throughout the rest of the website.