Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The county is on the cusp of unveiling new voting technology that might actually convince more people to show up at the polls.
While there is no shortage of laws in the U.S. designed to protect the right to vote, facts tell us that Americans are pretty wack about exercising those rights. This is especially true in urban areas, where average voter turnout in large U.S. metros lately teeters around the low 20s. As essential as voting is to democracy, Americans seem to find the act itself a mostly boring, perhaps even annoying endeavor.
This is especially true when voters have to wait in long lines, the result of election administration being a nil-to-low-budget priority in too many cities, towns, and states. Americans will wait in long lines for a rollercoaster at Six Flags or to get into a nightclub, because the rewards justify the inconvenience. There is little in the way of an immediate reward, though, for inching through lines to vote, especially if your candidate ends up losing. And then there’s the fact that so many things we used to wait in line for, we now don’t—we can skip the grocery lines with Instacart, skip cab lines to Uber, and carry plane tickets on our smartphones.
Enter Ideo, a global design firm that prides itself on taking a “human-centered” approach to rethinking things that the common person probably doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about, like sleeping and dying. Add voting to that list. In 2013, Los Angeles County Registrar Dean Logan invited Ideo to help conjure up a new voting system that’s more responsive and accessible than the county’s current decades-old system. The county has since spent close to $15 million with the design firm in creating what they believe will be the Zipcar of voting.
The result is a system of portable, collapsable touchscreen monitors (one day innovators will come up with something universally less gross than touchscreens) that voters can access at multiple locations instead of having to visit an assigned polling location. Here’s how it’s described in a July 31 article by Diana Budds in Fast Company:
Users have the option of an "expedited experience" afforded by pre-marking their votes on a web platform Ideo calls the Interactive Sample Ballot. The voting machine scans the ISB when voters arrive at a polling location. The ISB pre-populates the ballot, the user verifies that the votes are correct—they can change their votes at this time, too—then the voting machine prints out a hardcopy. Alternatively, voters can just show up at a the polling place and make their choices via the touch screen. In either case, the machine prints a hardcopy that the user reviews and feeds through a scanner in the machine. Ballots are collected and counted at a centralized location.
There are many jurisdictions with touchscreen voting technology already in place, with mixed results. After the Help America Vote Act passed in 2002, federal funds were made available to jurisdictions to upgrade and modernize their voting equipment—necessary after the 2000 Florida Bush-Gore ballot debacle that exposed the problematic hanging and pregnant “chad.” But those funds have since dried up, and many counties remain unsettled on their voting equipment.
As the White House’s Commission on Election Administration reported last year:
Notwithstanding their budgetary constraints, election officials consistently told the Commission they are dissatisfied with the current offerings of voting equipment and technology, as they consider purchases that will carry them through the next decade. The options available do not meet their needs and do not employ the sorts of advances that have become commonplace in consumer products and other industries.
It was this dissatisfaction that drove L.A. County to pursue its own remedy for antiquated voting infrastructure. The county is hoping to bring its new voting arcade online by 2020.
"Although we are designing a new system, there are things out there that people are used to, and part of our role as designers is to leverage some of those experiences," Ideo’s lead designer Blaise Bertrand told Fast Company. "What we’re working on is a behavioral change, and it’s very important to make that transition as smooth as possible so familiarity is important.”
This approach is worth paying attention to. There’s nothing trivial about the user experience when it comes to elections because any disruption to how people vote, no matter how slight or major, could inadvertently suppress voter behavior. University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Barry Burden testified to this in the recent North Carolina voter ID trial. Wrote Burden in his expert testimony:
This “calculus of voting” framework suggests that for many individuals the decision to vote is made “on the margins.” Small changes in benefits or costs may alter the likelihood of voting dramatically. The decision to vote is sensitive enough to costs that even Election Day weather has been shown to depress turnout. Costs are especially consequential for individuals with less education and non-habitual voters for whom the complications of registering, finding the correct polling place, and making the time to vote are frequently quite costly. In general, disruptions to voting habits raise costs and deter participation. It is little surprise, then, that a modest change to election procedures is enough to deter voting. A more significant change or a series of changes would have even greater potential to raise the costs for voting.
Most Americans vote once, maybe twice a year, but don’t spend time throughout the year thinking about how they’ll cast a ballot. We’re not served with daily reminders about the geography of polling locations, the way public transit users are constantly aware of the geography of bus and train stations, or the way we all are consistently conscious of the grocery and restaurant landscape in order to feed ourselves. For these reasons, any disruption to the election process has to be handled with care.
Once the Ideo design is approved, the county will then have to traverse the state and federal elections regulation process, which will be its own adventure. Still, L.A. County’s focus on the user, the voter, is a starting point worth applauding given that not many other jurisdictions have considered the same. It’s the reason why voting is such a dull activity to begin with.