State Voting Info Web Sites Often Fail Constituents
Many state governments are falling down on the job when it comes to providing citizens with clear voting information online -- even such basics as how to register or where to go to vote. When Web sites fail, people often pick up the phone. Calls to government agencies can be costly, and voters still may not get all the information they need.
It has been eight years since the 2000 presidential election revealed the many flaws that existed in the mechanics of U.S. voting systems. Despite that debacle, many states have not made even basic improvements to assist voters -- such as providing user-friendly Web sites that tell them how to register and where to go to vote.
A new study has found that many state election Web sites are too difficult for voters to find and use. Few even provide such fundamental information as whether a person is registered and what will be on the ballot, said Michael Caudell-Feagan, director of Make Voting Work and a senior officer with Pew Center on the States, which released the study, "Being Online is Not Enough: State Election Web Sites."
The findings, released some 20 days before another hotly contested presidential election, are disappointing. Pew found that the average usability score for election Web sites in the 50 states and the District of Columbia is 58 percent -- ranging from a high of 77 percent for Iowa to a low of 33 percent for New Hampshire -- ironic, given its starring role in the primaries.
"Fortunately New Hampshire is small enough that most people are aware of their precincts and election offices," Caudell-Feagan said. "In other states, voters may not have a clue."
Too Many Flaws
Constituents probably need little urging to go online. Nearly two-thirds of voters use the Web to answer questions about the government, according to the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.
It appears that the problem is the inadequacy of government-run voting information Web sites, not lack of citizen interest.
Few provide research data on voters, David E. Johnson, principal with Strategic Vision, a political consultancy, told CRM Buyer, and many are too hard to navigate.
Most people will spend no more than two minutes attempting to figure out a complex site design.
Other flaws include too much historical or extraneous data, poor search functionality and mislabeled links.
When voters are unable to get the information they need online, they will often call their local precincts, said Caudell-Feagan -- but they rarely get much love. "Government agencies tend to devote their resources to running the precincts and so on. They don't have staffing to handle the call volume that comes in, which can be quite expensive." Such calls can cost from US$10 to $100 to answer.
Those costs -- and a lot of voter frustration -- could be avoided if voters were redirected to better-designed Web sites, and some states actually do have them. Caudell-Feagan pointed to the Texas government's elections Web site as one good model.
Florida is another notable exception.
Strategic Vision's Johnson typically searches state sites for information about voter registration and announced candidates. Recently, he did opposition research for an election in a Florida precinct. "I could find who was donating to the candidate and even break it down by quarter," he said. The opponent, he found, had received the vast majority -- some 75 percent -- of donations from outside of the district.
States that have new secretaries of state tend to have the best Web sites, Johnson theorized. "If they are an incumbent, they won't bother to improve it -- but you can see an overhaul every time a new person gets in the office."
For instance Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has implemented some good changes to the Ohio site. She narrowly escaped a legal challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday rejected a Republican challenge that the state is unable to verify thousands of new voter registration applications with a government database. A lower court ruled Brunner must provide the names of people who didn't match with any database; her argument was that the system cannot easily spit out this information.
Once the election is over Ohio might want to take a look at Oregon's Web site, Johnson said. "It has a master list of all registered voters that have been verified."