Increasing Voter Turnout: It’s Tougher Than You Think
Increasing Voter Turnout: It’s Tougher Than You Think
In this 15-part series, election experts from government, academia, and the private and nonprofit sectors will weigh in on important questions, including: What can the social sector do to improve voter turnout in the United States?

Several designers have crowded into a non-descript office in downtown Los Angeles, watching with anticipation as people try out an early prototype of their latest creation. But these researchers, engineers, interaction and communication designers are not prototyping a consumer product—they’re redesigning voting for Los Angeles County, the most populous county in the United States, and one of the most diverse. How Los Angeles votes has the potential to influence the rest of the country.

The voting devices currently in use in Los Angeles look like something from the set of Mad Men; giant Scantron machines that were originally introduced in the 1960s. By 2020, though, Dean Logan, the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, and his team hope that L.A. voters will cast their ballots on an easy-to-use platform that’s accessible to individuals with hearing, vision, and mobility impairments: the results of this very prototype. Live prototypes like this one provide crucial insights that inform the design—from colors and communication techniques to the height of the machine and the heaviness of the cardstock on which ballots are printed.

But perhaps what is most powerful about this project is not the development of new hardware and software tools for voting, but the idea that design can be a way to increase accessibility and engagement with civic life. Logan has an expansive vision to make the voting experience both more intuitive and more inclusive for all in this vastly diverse area. That’s why Los Angeles County hired design and innovation consultancy IDEO two years ago—not just to develop a modern voting platform, but also to define a voter-centered election experience and design the elements to support that experience for the next generation of voters.

The project aims to bring a holistic, user-experience lens to how we vote. The hope is that such a human-centered approach will yield valuable ways to rethink the larger, systemic question of voter engagement, particularly for how we might reach the politically unengaged.

IDEO designers sought to understand the emotional mindsets people bring to voting, and to identify design opportunities based on those insights. Instead of dictating how people should change to meet the needs of the system, the design team focused on how the system might be redesigned to meet people’s needs.

The IDEO team started by looking at the larger experience of voting as an entry point to the design of the device. Why? Because casting a ballot is the key moment in a longer journey that starts when people become aware of an election and extends to the moment that they learn the results of their votes.

In-depth, qualitative research into the user experience uncovered multiple factors influencing voting behaviors—and focused on the intersection of three: impact, convenience, and community.

Impact—for the politically engaged.

“Your vote counts” is the foundation of every voter call to action; nearly all get-out-the-vote efforts today are based on the idea that each vote makes a difference. But while the value proposition resonates for many, the language of civic obligation can seem patronizing and naive to citizens who are disconnected from the political process. We found that for these people, voting behaviors are often actually decided by two other factors (convenience and community), which have been mostly ignored by those trying to improve voter turnout.

Convenience—for those who desire efficiency and ease.

Many people feel as if they don’t have time to vote, and that opens up an opportunity to design radically convenient voting: an experience that is simple, familiar, direct, and fits into voters’ daily routines. Putting voting opportunities in people’s paths can shift voting from a daunting activity to squeeze into already-busy days to an activity that’s easy and unavoidable. Automatic registration (as in Oregon and California) is a powerful design policy to make voting more convenient—because voters can skip the step of registering in advance.

Community—for those who want to be part of something bigger.

Many voters already seek the expertise and validation of their peers on their ballot choices. IDEO research yielded the insight that “stickers are the trophy of elections,” tangible symbols of connection on Election Day. Centralized voting centers are attractive to people with this mindset because they enable people to vote with their friends rather than their precinct neighbors—making the act of casting a ballot social first, and political second.

These three factors illustrate latent needs and reveal opportunities to address those needs through design. They also inspire “provocations,” or open-ended questions that reframe a challenge, suggest unexpected connections, and disrupt typical approaches. Building on the premise that voters with different priorities are motivated by different factors, the following opportunities suggest new ways to approach voter engagement efforts:

Design multiple voting experiences, to match the factors that matter most to people. The process of voting needs to work well for people with different priorities—impact, convenience, or connection. What if in-person voting could always happen in grand, iconic locations that elevate a sense of community and significance? What if voting could be so convenient that people could interact with and pre-mark their selections on their mobile devices while riding the subway to work? And what if voting by mail celebrated the preparation and investment of people who complete by-mail ballots? How might each available mode of voting amplify an experience that targets each mindset?

“Ladder up” to voting. Technology is often thought of as a way to make voting more seamless. But it might be most powerful enabling a cultural force that encourages people to participate and “ladder up” to casting a ballot. Many people are quick to share political memes or share political opinions via social media; these are indicators of political interest, and they could be also a potential gateway to voting. How might we design ways for quick, social indicators of political interest to lead to more formal engagement, such as voting?

Make voters feel like experts. Presently, voters study and keep their answers secret by filling in bubbles on a black and white form. Then, they wait for results. Voting looks, feels, and acts like a test. Through a user experience lens, voting is designed around a mental model that is intensely intimidating to many people. How might we re-envision a voting experience that makes voters feel like experts, not students?

Each of these provocations starts with a user perspective of the voting system, and widens the lens to consider the experience—social, emotional, and tactical—that surrounds casting a ballot. The solutions aren’t about changing people’s perspectives, but about designing ways to vote that meet people where they are.

Ernie Molina was one of hundreds of Californians who participated in IDEO’s work with Los Angeles County, by testing each version of the new voting device. “There are too many buttons—as a blind person, it’s confusing,” he commented on one prototype. We incorporated Ernie’s feedback and it helped improve each subsequent iteration. Beyond the redesign of voting machines for Los Angeles, our project offers ways to think systemically about the voting experience, and to ground that experience in human needs and insights. These insights, in turn, can provide avenues to impact the broader challenge of voter engagement.