I. In Focus This Week
Voters want information online, but will they find it?
New Pew study, “Being Online Is Still Not Enough”, assesses state election websites
“Am I registered to vote?” “Where is my polling place?” “What’s on my ballot?”
These are common questions voters routinely ask before heading to the polls and casting their ballots. But easily finding answers to these questions depends, to a large extent, on whether their state election agencies are providing information and tools on their websites.
To determine how well states are helping voters prepare to vote, in 2010 the Pew Center on the States launched a nationwide assessment of the 50 states and the District of Columbia’s election websites.
The assessment was conducted by the California Voter Foundation and the Center for Governmental Studies, two nonprofits with decades of online voter education experience, and the Nielsen Norman Group, evaluating more than 100 detailed criteria based on three categories: content, look-up tools, and usability.
The new report shows that while many states have made significant improvements, there are still major gaps in providing easily accessible, comprehensive information and tools to voters.
If you live in Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia, or Wisconsin, you are in luck. These states’ election websites offer all of the recommended look-up tools applicable to voters in their states: polling place location, registration status, ballot information, absentee ballot status and provisional ballot status.
Voters in these 10 states literally have some of the most important election information at their fingertips – they can go online 24-hours a day, access personalized ballot information, verify they are registered to vote at their current address, find their polling place, and check to see if their absentee ballot has been received or if a provisional ballot has been counted.
But if you live in California or Vermont, getting ready to vote can be much more of a challenge. These two states offer none of the five look-up tools the project assessed.
Overall, the most common look-up tool helps voters locate their polling places – all but two states offer this online service. In fact, the number of states providing this tool rose dramatically between 2008 and 2010, increasing from 34 to 49, with almost universal, nationwide access to this tool going into the 2012 election season.
The second most popular tool allows voters to verify their registration status, with 41 states offering this tool, up from just over half – 27 – in 2008. Nationwide, 82 percent of states provide this online convenience to voters, helping them determine before Election Day whether they are registered to vote at their current address.
In addition, researchers found:
- 22 states offer voters a personalized, online ballot information look-up tool;
- 29 states allow voters to check their absentee ballot status online; and
- 19 states allow voters to check their provisional ballot status online.
The growing availability of such look-up tools is welcome news to voters, who are increasingly turning to the Internet to help them prepare for elections.
- A majority (57 percent) of voters said they looked up what was on their ballot before voting most recently;
- Almost half (45 percent) sought out where to vote and voting hours (44 percent); and
- About a third (30 percent) verified that they were officially registered, while 29 percent looked up rules regarding photo ID requirements.
“Being Online Is Still Not Enough” highlights key findings of the assessment, recommends best practices, provides an interactive map and includes a fact sheet for each state featuring its overall score, strengths, recommended improvements, noteworthy features, and suggestions for an initial “quick fix.”
In addition to evaluating whether each state had the five recommended look-up tools, project researchers also conducted a comprehensive review of content, assessing whether each site provided essential information on voting basics, such as registration, items on the ballot, absentee and early voting, assistance for voters with disabilities, and resources for military and overseas voters. This content assessment comprised half of each state’s score, while lookup tools and usability each made up 25 percent.
States’ overall scores were grouped into three categories: Good, Average, and Needs Improvement. Ten states received the top scores of 79 or higher (out of a possible 100). More than half the states – 29 – rated as “Average,” scoring between 65-78, and 12 states received scores of 64 or lower.
While states have made significant progress in providing more look-up tools to voters, the assessment results show there is much room for improvement. A number of recommendations and state election website best practices were identified by project researchers:
- Identify voter registration requirements with phrases such as “you must” or “you are required by law,” rather than “you should” or “you may wish to.” Provide clear, direct information about all the circumstances that would require voters to update their registration records;
- Clearly state whether voters must show ID when voting at the polls;
- Explain which early and absentee voting options are available. Tell voters what to do if an absentee ballot is lost, damaged, or does not arrive in the mail;
- Provide sections for military and overseas voters that include, or connect to, all relevant content and tools, such as lookup tools for ballot information and registration status;
- When providing voter look-up tools, avoid returning more personal information than was entered by the user;
- Make sure voter registration status search return screens include instructions for updating or correcting the data displayed;
- Allow users to access polling place and ballot information by street address, and provide a sample address that can be used to try out these tools;
- Include polling place hours on search return screens for polling place look-up tools;
- Present a site search tool as an empty field at top of every page;
- Implement website navigation that is logical, persistent, and consistent;
- Write voting information at or below the eighth-grade level so that it is understandable to most users;
- Limit using PDFs to print-and-fill-out forms, not for basic information;
- Make visited links change color. Most users expect links to change color once they have visited them so they won’t waste time visiting them again; and
- Ensure that the homepage is easy to scan, and light on prose-style content. Make links easily identifiable. Content should be concise and presented in a brief format.
The benefits of providing election information and tools to voters online in a user-friendly format are clear. For voters, it means they can easily research their voting choices—where they are already looking for it—and prepare to vote with confidence.
As the Mellman Group poll found, the most popular way for voters to check if they had a new polling place was to go online. For election officials, it means election agency staff can work more efficiently, spending less time answering routine questions and focus instead on providing excellent public service.
Indeed, in the course of conducting the assessment, project researchers found many state election agencies were eager to receive feedback and find ways to improve their websites.
The 2012 election season provides an excellent opportunity for states to expand election content, implement new voter tools and enhance website usability to meet the growing demand for online access to election information.
(electionline.org is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.)
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