Pew Study Finds State Elections Web Sites Have Significant Room for Improvement
State elections Web sites are often too difficult for voters to find and use to answer questions such as whether they are registered to vote, where to vote and what will be on the ballot, according to a new study released today by the Pew Center on the States. “Being Online is Not Enough: State Elections Web sites,” a 50-state analysis examining elections Web sites' usability, finds that when voters cannot easily locate information online, it diverts limited resources to operate help lines which can cost as much as $100 per call in staffer time. The report, produced by Make Voting Work, a joint initiative of the Pew Center on the States and the JEHT Foundation, offers recommendations to improve state Web sites before Election Day.
“State election offices have made considerable strides in getting Web sites up and running. Yet as more and more Americans seek information online, it is no longer enough for election offices merely to put information online,” said Michael Caudell-Feagan, director of Make Voting Work. “Voters are turning to the Web with basic questions about how to cast their ballot. And our study shows that state Web sites need to do a better job in meeting those needs. There are simple things outlined in this report that every state can do to improve services and make the democratic process easier.”
Researchers with the Pew Center on the States, in conjunction with Nielsen Norman Group, a leading Internet usability firm, measured the usability and effectiveness of state election Web sites based on key benchmarks including: how easily users can locate the site on the Web, how easy it is for users to navigate through the site and understand content, how well the homepage is organized, how easy it is for users to search the site and how well the site incorporates online tools to further help users locate information. Based on these criteria each site was assigned a usability score, ranging on a scale from 1 to 100.
Some of the study's key findings include:
- 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 (Iowa) to a low of 33 percent (New Hampshire);
- When using popular search engines such as Google, only 38 states appear as the first search term when searching for “voting in [STATE NAME]”; and only 34 official state Web sites appear as the first search result when users enter in their state name with “polling place”;
- Thirty-four states have a poll locator tool, but only 11 states will identify a polling location for any address in the state—helping voters to easily find the basic information they will need to vote;
- Half the states including the District of Columbia (53 percent) offer a way for users to verify their registration online; and
- By not improving their sites, states are missing an opportunity to save money on voter telephone help lines—up to $100 per call.
These findings are especially troubling given the increasing tendency of Americans to use the Internet for information about the public sector. According to the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, nearly two-thirds of voters use the Web to answer their questions about government. In addition, the increased interest in this election combined with the influx of new voters is driving a need for information.
The report also includes recommendations for improvements and provides details about the Voting Information Project (VIP), a joint effort of state and local election officials, Make Voting Work and Google, Inc., that aims to bring official voting information—polling place locations, ballot content and information about registration and absentee ballots—directly to voters via the Internet. Currently, six states have made official data available using VIP and several more states are in development.
VIP data are freely available—to the media, voter engagement groups and search engines—with an interest in assisting voters, and will make it possible for developers to create new tools for voter information harnessing the latest developments in online and mobile technology.
“We know that, on average, people spend less than two minutes on a Web site before they give up on their search for information,” said Kil Huh, research project director at the Pew Center on the States and a lead researcher on the report. “Too many of the Web sites we visited included historical information, inadequate search functions and mislabeled links that may prevent locating what users need. If voters turning to the Internet can't easily find the information they need to cast their ballots in November, it could drive up the volume of calls and, thus, costs to election officials with limited resources.”
Make Voting Work conducted its research in conjunction with the Nielsen Norman Group, a leading Internet usability firm, and used commonly accepted standards for Web search and usability. To develop benchmarks for usability criteria, data were initially collected and analyzed between September 4-15, 2008 and reevaluated between October 6-7, 2008 from state election Web sites.
Read the full report, Being Online is Not Enough: State Elections Web Sites.
Make Voting Work, a project of the Pew Center on the States, seeks to foster an election system that achieves the highest standards of accuracy, accessibility, efficiency and security. The initiative examines the most pressing election problems, and undertakes and evaluates pilot projects and experiments designed to address them. This research will inform our efforts to identify effective solutions through changes in policies, practices and technology.
The Pew Charitable Trusts applies the power of knowledge to solve today's most challenging problems. Our Pew Center on the States identifies and advances effective policy approaches to critical issues facing states. Online at pewcenteronthestates.org.
The JEHT's Foundation's Fair and Participatory Elections program promotes the integrity and fairness of democratic elections in the United States. The Foundation works with state and other government officials and entities, researchers, and non-partisan reformers to insure technical integrity of elections by professionalizing the administration of elections, insulating them from partisan political control, and supporting independent structures to oversee elections and related functions.