Report

Being Online Is Still Not Enough

Reviews and Recommendations for State Election Websites

Quick Summary

Millions are turning to official state election websites to find the information they need to cast a ballot.

Being Online Is Still Not Enough provided state-by-state reviews and analysis based on detailed criteria of election websites for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It also included recommendations for improving each site to better inform voters, and provides a list of best practices adopted by many states to maximize their election office's online presence. This report followed Pew's initial 2008 study, Being Online Is Not Enough.

Assessments were based on three categories: content, lookup tools, and usability. Roll your cursor over the map below to see each state's overall score, and scores broken down by category.

Update: See online lookup tools for voters in 2012.

Report Content

Overall scores were classified as:

  • Good (79-100),
  • Average (65-78), and
  • Needs Improvement (0-64).

Content scores were classified as:

  • Good (43-50),
  • Average (35-42.9), and
  • Needs Improvement (0-34.9).

Lookup Tools scores were classified as:

  • Good (23-25),
  • Average (15-22.9), and
  • Needs Improvement (0-14.9).

Usability scores were classified as:

  • Good (17-25),
  • Average (13-16.9), and
  • Needs Improvement (0-12.9).

Key Findings

Millions of Americans rely on official state election websites for answers to common voting questions that voters have before casting a ballot.

In 2010, the Pew Center on the States commissioned an assessment of state election websites based on the quality of content, the availability of lookup tools, and overall usability. The study found that many states have upgraded their websites since Pew's initial 2008 study, Being Online Is Not Enough

In 2010:

  • All but two state election websites offered a tool to look up polling places, an increase from 2008, when a third of the websites lacked this feature.
  • 82 percent of the websites allowed voters to check their registration status online, up from just over half in 2008.
  • 82 percent of states saw their official election website rank as the first result on Google when searching for "register to vote in [state]." Nearly two-thirds also returned as the first result when searching for "polling places in [state]."

Although many states have shown dramatic improvement since 2008, others continue to miss opportunities to help and inform voters online:

  • California and Vermont's sites provided none of the five recommended lookup tools.
  • Some information still was not as accessible as it could be. Many states provided significant amounts of information in difficult-to-search PDFs, instead of the more accessible HTML format.
  • Only 13 states provided information written at the recommended eighth-grade reading level (to make content understandable to low-literacy users), and only 10 states received the top score for concise Web writing.
  • Fewer than half of the websites (23) delivered search results clear enough to permit users to refine their searches, an improvement (albeit a modest one) over 2008 (12 sites).

Being Online Is Still Not Enough provides an analysis based on detailed criteria of election websites in 2010 for all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia. It also includes recommendations for improving each website to better inform voters, and provides a list of best practices adopted by many states to maximize their election office's online presence.


Best Practices

Being Online Is Still Not Enough identified best practices for state election websites that help voters easily find and understand information about registration, voting, candidates, and ballot measures.

Many of these recommendations are based on practices already in place in some states. The report divides best practices into three groups:

  Content

  Lookup Tools

  Usability  

BONE2 bullet small Registering to vote BONE2 bullet small Displaying lookup tools BONE2 bullet small Search engine results
BONE2 bullet small Ballot information BONE2 bullet small Writing instructions BONE2 bullet small Website navigation
BONE2 bullet small Casting a ballot BONE2 bullet small Information to include BONE2 bullet small Writing for the Web
BONE2 bullet small Absentee voting/early voting BONE2 bullet small Displaying website search tools BONE2 bullet small Effective page layouts
BONE2 bullet small Military/overseas voters BONE2 bullet small Good search results BONE2 bullet small Accessibility
BONE2 bullet small Voters with disabilities   BONE2 bullet small Organized home page
BONE2 bullet small Contact information    
BONE2 bullet small Elections calendar    
BONE2 bullet small Election results    
BONE2 bullet small Privacy protection  

 


Best Practices: Usability

State election websites can significantly improve their usefulness by ensuring that they are effectively presenting and promoting their content.

Usability recommendations are presented in three categories:

Content Presentation

Even if state election websites have the best information, they must present it in a way that will be accessible and intuitive for users. The following recommendations are based on expert assessments and practices already in place in some states. View best practices.

Home Page

As the entry point for information, the home page of state election websites is key to ensuring usability. The following recommendations are based on expert assessments and practices already in place in some states. View best practices.

Web Presence

Even if state election websites have the best information, they must present it in a way that will be accessible and intuitive for users. The following recommendations are based on expert assessments and practices already in place in some states. View best practices.


Best Practices: Content Presentation

Even if state election websites have the best information, they must present it in a way that will be accessible and intuitive for users. The following recommendations are based on expert assessments and practices already in place in some states.

  • Implement navigation that is logical, persistent, and consistent 
    • Logical: Navigation links are written and grouped according to what a user will be looking for.
    • Persistent: The navigation system is on every page of the website.
    • Consistent: The navigation system is in the same location on every page and works the same way from page to page. 

For example, the Nevada navigation system provided logical labels, was available on every page, and was consistent in how it worked and appeared. The navigation opened automatically as users moved within the site, so they did not have to click on a broad category in order to see the subcategory links below it. 

BONE2 Nevada thumb

 

  • Use page titles, navigational highlighting, and “breadcrumbs” to help users determine where they are within the site and where to go next. 
    • Consistent page titles match the name of the link the user clicks and accurately indicate the content of the page.
    • Navigation highlighting uses color, bold type, or flagging to indicate the broader, “global” section and the page the user is on.
    • Breadcrumbs run along the top of the page and indicate the location of the page within the site structure. They typically look like this: Produce >> Fruit >> Oranges

For example, Alaska used page titles, navigation highlighting, and breadcrumbs to indicate location within its election website.

BONE2 Alaska thumb

  • Use descriptive link names that clearly indicate content the user is linking to instead of using generic links such as “Click Here.”

Users tend to scan pages looking for bullet points, bold text, and links. When scanning a page, generic link titles such as “Click Here” force users to stop to read in order to find out where that link will take them. If they cannot scan quickly, they may not find what they want or they may give up.

  • Information should be grouped logically, with each topic in one place. It is useful to organize by intended audience, such as “For Voters” or “For Candidates.” Or organize by subject/topic, by task, or by chronology.

For example, the grouping of information on Wisconsin's “Voters” page was well structured. The category headings matched what voters and prospective voters were looking for. 

BONE2 Wisconsin thumb

Making Information Understandable and Accessible

  • Because 43 percent of the U.S. population has low literacy, according to the U.S. Department of Education, voting information should be written at or below the eighth-grade level so that it is understandable to most users. Content should be written for the web in concise, easy-to-scan bullet points with hyperlinks to guide users.
    • Concise wording: Start with the main point, then add necessary detail.
    • Easy to scan: Use bold text and highlighting to group information logically.
    • Hyperlinks: Hyperlink phrases to take users to information and tools on the site.

Also, use standard formatting, such as only underlining text for hyperlinks, not for headlines or emphasis.

For example, Florida's election website was easy to scan because of its logical grouping of content, easily skimmed blocks of text, and bulleted lists.

  BONE2 Florida thumb

  • Limit using PDFs to print-and-fill-out forms, not for basic information.
    • Users who open a PDF often become confused when taken to what they think is another website, but one without any navigation. They have trouble getting out of these “new sites” and get frustrated when they cannot see previously available elements of the website.
    • PDFs are not easily searchable for people who are not expert Adobe Acrobat users.
    • Users frequently complain about not being able to see a PDF document well, and many struggle to find how to resize the document.
    • PDFs that present information in lengthy, linear fashion often are poor substitutes for today's Web presentation, which features information broken into pieces for quick scanning of material the user is interested in.
  • Offer features that make information accessible to users with visual disabilities. Users with impaired vision often use assistive technologies to interact with websites, including screen readers such as JAWS and magnifiers such as ZoomText.
  • Place a “Skip Navigation” link at the top of all pages. Users of screen readers rely on the link to jump to the main content of any given page.

For example, the Maryland State Board of Elections website included a “Skip to Main Content” at the top of each page. That allowed users with screen readers to skip over repetitive navigation.

BONE2 Maryland thumb

  • Use scalable fonts. This allows users to change text size with their browser controls.
  • Offer “ALT text” for graphics needed to navigate the website. This allows those using screen-reading software to know what an image is showing. This text should not exceed 100 characters.

For example, the Oregon Elections Division site included “ALT” information for graphics throughout the site. This example shows the home page with images turned off (top) and with images on (below).

BONE2 Oregon thumb

  • Provide high-contrast colors between background and text and with images to increase legibility. The most basic and legible high-contrast scheme is black text on a white background. Even well-sighted people can get frustrated trying to read small, poorly contrasted text on a website.
  • Make visited links change color. Most users expect links to change color once they have visited them so they will not waste time visiting them again.

 Best Practices: Home Page

As the entry point for information, the home page of state election websites is key to ensuring usability. The following recommendations are based on expert assessments and practices already in place in some states.

  • Use the most prominent space on the home page to show users how the website is structured to meet their needs, not for long introductions or bureaucratic explanations.
  • Place prominently the links that might be of most interest to voters, rather than candidates or researchers. Grouping information by audience helps users find the content they are seeking.

For example, the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics' website provided three informational categories across the top: Voter, Election, and Candidate.

   BONE2 DC thumb

  • Place links to voter-oriented information high up on the home page where users will see it.

For example, Montana's election site addressed the most common questions in the top center of the home page.

BONE2 Montana thumb

   

  • Ensure that the home page is easy to scan, and light on prose-style content. Make links easily identifiable. Content should be concise and presented in a brief format.

For example, the Iowa home page was not crowded with competing graphics and used clearly worded text links to make it easy to find information.

   BONE2 Iowa thumb

 


Best Practices: Web Presence

It is critical that search engines such as Google make it easy to find state election websites by including links in their top results.

For example, the first link in Google search results for “register to vote in Utah” is a link to the Voter Registration Information page on the official elections website. This result repeats the search terms the user typed in. Both the page title and Web address (URL) are understandable, and the linked page includes content that matches the search terms. 

BONE2 Utah thumb web presence

A centrally placed link on the official state website can also drive voters to online elections information.

 

For example, Iowa promotes voter information and election results in the center of the state home page.

  BONE2 Iowa thumb web presence

 


Best Practices: Lookup Tools

Lookup tools allow users to filter large amounts of information so they can easily find their ward or precinct, for example, without wading through long lists.

We recommend five voting information lookup tools that allow users to find their:

  • Registration status
  • Precinct-level ballot information
  • Polling place location
  • Absentee ballot status
  • Provisional ballot status

The following recommendations are based on expert assessments and practices already in place in some states.

Lookup Tools' Presentation, Function, and Design

  • Prominently feature the tools available on the website.
  • Provide a clear description of the information that users can find. The best introductions are brief and easy to scan, provide a bulleted list of the information a user can find with the tool, and estimate the time a user will spend to get results.

For example, Georgia's “My Voter Page” system included an introduction page with a bulleted list of the information users can access.

BONE2 Georgia thumb

  • Avoid returning more personal information than a user enters.
  • Make sure the return screen for voter registration status includes 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, as Montana does, that can be used to try out these tools.
  • Include polling place hours within the text featured on return screens for polling place lookup tools.
  • Design tools to ask questions in a logical order. Users should be able to enter data easily; required fields should be identified clearly; and users should understand how to proceed to the next step.
  • Provide clear error messages that are:
    • Noticeable, with a message in bolded red near the field that needs attention.
    • Specific, with instructions on exactly what needs to be fixed.
  • On more complicated forms, an error should be noted with both a pop-up message and an indication on the page at the point where the error occurs.

Website Search Functions

  • Present a website search tool as an empty field at top of every page (the right-hand side is expected by users).
    • Include a submit button titled “Search.”
    • Provide enough space (at least 30 characters).
    • Make it visually distinct.
    • Do not use advanced or technical search categories or instructions.
    • Provide understandable search-results titles and information.

When Web pages are not tagged or given descriptions, search engines create description text by pulling excerpts from the target page. Even the best search engines do not know what information is most useful to describe the pages and what will be useful to users, unless it is provided through the search engine's indexing tools.

Websites can define areas of pages that should be indexed, should not be indexed, and can sometimes be indexed under particular circumstances. This will fine-tune the search results so that users get a true sense of what content they will find on the page.

If possible, the responsibility for site indexing, tagging, and descriptions should be assigned to a skilled taxonomist or library sciences professional.

For example, Utah's search-result abstracts clearly indicated what content will be on the resulting pages. Additionally, the results page included terms to refine the search.

Utah thumb  

 


Best Practices: Content

State election websites can significantly improve their usefulness by providing comprehensive content for a wide variety of voting audiences, and by offering lookup tools that allow voters to find customized information. The following recommendations are based on expert assessments and practices already in place in some states.

   

Absentee Voting and Early Voting

  • Clearly state whether it is legal for absentee voters to receive assistance with marking their ballots.
  • Tell voters what to do if an absentee ballot is lost, damaged, or does not arrive in the mail.
  • Explain which early and absentee voting options are available.
  • Include information about the accessibility of early voting websites.

Ballot Information

  • Add candidate contact information such as phone numbers, e-mail and websites addresses so voters have a reliable directory for further researching their choices.
  • Provide job descriptions for state offices so voters can evaluate which candidate is most qualified for an elected position.
  • Archive candidate and ballot-measure information to preserve historical information for the public.

Casting a Ballot

  • Clearly state whether voters must show ID when voting at the polls.
  • Include the hours polling places are open in lookup results.
  • Advertise a toll-free number or provide an online tool so voters can find the status of their provisional ballots.

Election Officials' Contact Information

  • Designate a phone number that can serve as a help or hotline number for voters and publicize it on the websites.
  • List the hours election offices are open to the public.
  • Provide links to websites for local election agencies.

Future Elections/Elections Calendar

  • Provide elections calendars that are easy to use and intended for the general public.
  • Include information about local election dates and whether they are consolidated with state elections.

Election Results

  • Incorporate maps in election-results displays.
  • Provide results in percentages and by precinct to help the public better understand the data.

Military and Overseas Absentee Voters

  • Provide sections for military and overseas voters that include, or connect to, all relevant content and tools, such as ballot information and lookup tools for voter registration status.
  • Increase visibility of the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot (FWAB) and include state-specific instructions for its completion.

Privacy Protection of Site Users' Data

  • Make sure website practices are consistent with published privacy and security policies.
  • If a lookup tool requires sensitive voter information, ensure it is on a secure server.

Registering to Vote

  • Offer content now presented in PDF format, such as instructions on the state voter registration form, in HTML as well.
  • Identify legal requirements with phrases such as “you must” or “you are required by law to,” rather than “you should” or “you may wish to.”
  • Let those who want to register to vote know to what degree the information they provide on a registration form is considered public and under what circumstances, if any, it can remain private.
  • Provide registration instructions for voters who are in hospitals or long-term care facilities.
  • Provide clear, direct information about all the circumstances that would require voters to update their registration records.

Voters with Disabilities

  • Provide instructions for using accessible voting equipment to cast a ballot.
  • Make sure information for disabled voters, such as a TDD or TTY phone number, is accessible and presented in HTML.

Media Contact

Stephanie Bosh

Officer, Communications

202.540.6741