KATHERINE M. ZHOU
 

VOTE.gov

 

The voting process in the United States is incredibly poorly designed. There's many reasons why we have consistently lower voter turnout rates compared to other established democracies in the world. Not only are our confusing voting policies different in each state, but we also don't make it easy for citizens to register or get to the booths. When voter turnout is low, it signifies a stifled democracy. As part of the AIGA SHINE Program's "Design for Good" initiative, I worked with a team of designers to figure out a solution to make modern voting easier and more accessible.

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CHALLENGE

 
 
 Visual data from  FairVote

Visual data from FairVote

 

So what's up with our low voter turnout? According to the Pew Research Center, "[In the United States], registration is mainly an individual responsibility. And registered voters represent a much smaller share of potential voters in the U.S. than just about any other [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] country."

Having a healthy voter turnout is a sign of a healthy democracy. Why? Aside from signifying more legitimacy, higher voter turnout also leads to a more representative democracy. As noted in The Atlantic, "[The] people who voted are not only in the minority, they form an unrepresentative minority. Millions of Americans are too young to vote. Others are disenfranchised felons, unable to vote for health reasons, missed registration deadlines, stuck at work, dissuaded by voter ID laws. In many salient ways, voters are not like nonvoters: voters are richer, whiter, and older than other Americans."

Democracy thrives when it is practiced, not prevented.
— LDF President and Director-Counsel, John Payton
 From  HuffPost

The primary problem my team wanted to focus on was:

How can we design an inclusive solution that allows for more people to vote in our state and federal elections?

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OBSERVING

 

Empathizing

There are many contributing factors to why someone might not show up at the polls. We decided to survey a couple of people to see if they voted or not...and if they didn't vote, what stopped them from doing so?

Why Didn't You Vote?

After surveying a few people from a variety of states, we asked the 13 people that did not participate in the most recent general election about their primary reason for not voting.

Apathy: "I'm not into politics", "My vote doesn't mean anything statistically anyways"

Busy: "It takes way too long", "I don't have time to wait in line", "I'm working then and I can't take off"

Location: "The voting place is too far"

Uninformed: "I don't know anything about the candidates and I don't want to vote for the wrong people", "It would be pretty irresponsible for me to vote since I don't know what's going on", "I have no idea who to vote for"

Forgot: "I had no idea the election was that day", "I found out too late"

Logistics: "Since I'm a only student here, I didn't have the state ID"

It's not surprising that being too busy to vote was the most commonly used reason for not participating in the past election. Voting can take an incredibly long time. When I voted in the 2016 general election, it took me 10 minutes to get to the campus voting location, 15 minutes to wait in line, about 8 minutes to vote, and then another 10 minutes to get back home to my apartment. That's over 40 minutes. And that's not even on the long end. In some counties, people were waiting in line for hours. The Brennan Center for Justice found that those who waited the longest tended to disproportionately be minorities in urban areas.

As depicted in the customer journey map below, the entire process leading up to election day is long and intense. Some steps are mandatory, others are not (like learning about the candidates to make an informed decision). Some steps are accepted across the board, others vary by state (like getting proper photo ID).

customerjourney

Another problem with our current voting system that was not mentioned by those that we surveyed is the outdatedness of our voting machines. Older machines built in the 1990s are well past their intended expirations dates. This leads to incorrectly recorded votes, crashes and freezes, as well as security issues. The Brennan Center for Justice expects the overall cost of replacing all the outdated machines to be well over $1 billion.

User Personas

After collating the reasons why people did not vote, my team and I distilled them into three personas for our product: Jamal, Zahra, and Becky. They are all very different, but similar in that they didn't vote.

jamal

Jamal

Jamal is your low income, minority user. He lives in an area that is underfunded and lacks sufficient resources (especially at the voting booths). He also finds himself too busy to vote since he is trying to work enough so he can pay his bills and provide food for his wife and two grandsons. He cares about social issues but cannot afford to do his civic duties because it is too time-consuming.

zahra

Zahra

Zahra is your lower-middle class, minority user. As she is an immigrant, she struggles with the language barrier. She wants to be more civically involved in the American democracy as she was denied that opportunity in her former country. She's trying to learn English so she can be self-sufficient. She also wasn't aware that she needed a Virginia photo ID to vote; she previously lived in Maryland where a photo ID wasn't necessary.

becky

Becky

Becky is your upper class, Caucasian user. She's a legacy student at Georgetown, which is where her parents met. Her parents are big-time political donors, but Becky doesn't really keep up with all of that because there's more pressing things on her mind. She would care more but she is too busy trying to pass her classes and get an internship while maintaining some semblance of a social life.

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CREATING

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Opportunity: How do we create a quicker, supplementary way to vote that is secure and inclusive?

Background: Voting in America is and always has been an inconvenience. My mother used to tell me how much more of a hassle it was for her to vote right after she got American citizenship. At that time, she worked long hours at a fast food restaurant in order to pay off her grad school loans. She couldn't afford to run to the polls back then, and even if she did, there was a language barrier - there were no ballots in Chinese.

Solution: Create a native, multilingual, mobile app that allows people to vote (and register!) via smartphones. Overall, this process would take less than fifteen minutes to set up, verify identity, and submit the ballot. It would also prompt the users who might have filled out their ballots incorrectly. As for security, if our technology allows for us to do modern banking via our mobile devices, why can't we vote this way too?

vote-intro-gif
 

Initially, I was concerned about how certain inequalities might come into play with a mobile voting solution. After doing some research, I was surprised to learn that 77% of adults in the United States owned smartphones (a number that is only increasing with time). Also, racially, there wasn't a huge discrepancy at all with smartphone ownership.

There was a difference in gender as well, which was a bit larger than I expected. There was more of a difference that came into play regarding income, education level, and location, which was expected. I do believe that larger systematic changes are needed in order to reach out to those who are in the lower echelons of income and education. A mobile app won't fix the problem, but perhaps infusing more funding and better strategizing will. Also, it is important to note that my team's mobile solution is not a replacement for in-person voting. This is a supplement. Think of how much wider we can cast our net for increasing voter turnout if voting digitally was an option as well.

 Survey conducted Jan. 3-10, 2018, courtesy of  Pew Research Center .

Survey conducted Jan. 3-10, 2018, courtesy of Pew Research Center.

 

Opportunity: How to do you turn uninformed and unconfident voters into informed and confident voters?

Background: I remember when I voted in the Democratic primaries for the first time, I felt absolutely baffled when it came to voting for the local and state positions. Hailing from Pittsburgh, I had no clue about any one of the North Carolina candidates. Flustered, I sheepishly snuck my phone out in the booth and frantically googled their platforms. I learned later that I was not unique in that experience. Many of my friends in college who did not vote cited being uninformed as a key reason for why they did not participate.

Solution: Offer built-in popover screens that provide sanctioned and unbiased information regarding the candidates themselves as well as their platforms. Users can sift through the candidates and find out more about their stances and agendas easily.

vote-hillary
 

Opportunity: How to do you offer an accessible and inclusive platform for those that are voting?

Background: Almost a third of voters with disabilities reported that it was a struggle to vote. That is not okay. Given that 70% of Americans with any disability have a smartphone today, we needed to insure that the solution we were creating was as inclusive as possible and fulfilled all the standards set out by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

Solution: Offer options for text enlargement, text to speech, and help/report functionality. We also ensured that our product was consistent with WCAG 2.0. Voting is a right and nobody should ever feel excluded in the process of fulfilling their civic duties.

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PROTOTYPE

 
 
 
 
 
 

A new way to vote. Trustworthy, inclusive, convenient.

INSIGHTS

 

This project was incredibly exciting for me. The voting process has long fascinated and frustrated me. I remember when I was younger and first learned about the electoral college after the 2000 election - the deep, unsettling feeling of something about this process isn't fair. That feeling returned in 2016 after the general election. 

Our current voting process is not designed to be equitable. It is flawed in its design. The fact that it varies by state and has been proven to make participating harder for minorities is not okay. Not only that, in today's social media and publishing frenzy, we've arrived at fragmented realities. Democracy is founded on the idea that all types of people are able to voice their thoughts...but it only works when what is real is distinguishable from what is fake. When you have an inequitable voting process that lacks representative participation and informed voters, you have a broken democracy.

If you could vote via a mobile app like Vote.gov, would you do so?

Today, tech has allowed us to do so much more and we think that there's serious potential for this product to make an impact. Moving on, my team and I would love to develop Vote.gov more by:

  1. Expanding the functionality to include a fleshed-out registration component. Currently, our prototype only has the voting part. I think having the registration aspect would be critical; registering to vote is one of those tasks that is really easily labeled as a "hassle." Having an option to do it without leaving the comfort of your own home or mailing anything out would be great.
  2. User testing to see how potential users feel about this product. In order to convince potential users to adopt the product, we need to convince them that Vote.gov is trustworthy and convenient. The convenient part is the easier part by far. How do you establish trust...especially nowadays when hacking is nothing new? A huge component is incorporating interaction design that allows for feedback so that users know what is happening and feel a sense of autonomy.
  3. Adding a web version as well. We designed mobile-first, but I foresee that adding a web version is also key. 89% of American adults use the Internet. Having a version of Vote.gov that they can use on computers would expand reach as well.
  4. Researching security measures and strategizing the best way to protect privacy and data. Currently, the prototype has a pretty lax security and verification process. Moving forward, we want to look into the best process to guarantee security. Does this mean two-factor authentication? Or does this mean integrating fingerprint verification? How do we proceed in a process that protects everyone and doesn't exclude anyone?

Takeaways

1. Designing inclusively is always worth it. There is no excuse to not design inclusively anymore. My team consisted of women of color, so this mattered a lot to us. We wanted to elevate those who had long been marginalized and ensure that their voices were represented.

2. Think systems. How does this product play into the existing system? We were trying to integrate Vote.gov with in-person voting in a way so that the former supplemented the latter. What would that look like? Given that most middle class and upper middle class neighborhoods would probably adopt mobile voting, would counties be able to shift their resources into lower-income communities, where polling places are few and far between and were machines are severely outdated?