The American voting system is broken. Less than two-thirds of voting-age citizens cast a ballot in most elections. Only 61.8% of eligible Americans voted in the 2012 election, and that’s considered a fairly good turnout. The number of ballots cast in midterm elections (when there are no presidential candidates to vote for) tends to be even lower.
Part of that is a design issue: for a variety of reasons, the United States makes it hard to vote. You have to register, figure out who’s who out of the many names on the ballot—and what they stand for—not to mention physically get yourself to the polls on a Tuesday and wait in line to punch holes in a poorly designed piece of paper.
It doesn't have to be this way. An conceptual set of apps called Intuitive Voting aims to streamline the voting process, making it easier to get information on when, where, and how to vote, for both everyday citizens and election volunteers.
The concept, by Philadelphia-based design firm Intuitive Company, was the winner of a recent competition from the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society to redesign the voter experience. "The idea is that it’s a single point [of entry] for the voting process—for registering, for learning about the issues, then for voting, either directly or indirectly," says Rob Tannen, director of design research and strategy at the Intuitive Company (and occasional Co.Design contributor).
Intuitive Voting is two separate apps: one for volunteers working the polls and one for voters. The former includes information on Election Day volunteer procedures, like when to show up and set up the voting machines, contact information for election officials, and a way to report current estimated voting times at a polling place. Because it's important for polling-place volunteers to remain objective and unbiased to the outcome of the elections they're helping run, the designers elected to divide volunteer functions and voting functions into separate apps. The voting app includes a tool to help people register to vote, information about the candidates and their positions, and a sample ballot function where users can record their choices before they head into the voting booth.
Part of what Intuitive Voting is trying to tackle is America's well-documented issue with voter apathy. "We were trying to figure out a way that we could increase people’s interest and engagement in voting beyond election season and election day," Tannen says. "Most of the year people don’t really pay much attention to voting."
The designers observed voters and conducted interviews during primary elections this past May. "When the election comes up, even people that are regular voters aren't necessarily informed," Tannen says. "Sometimes when they get to the voting booth, it’s the first time they’ve seen all the candidates. What we were trying to do was figure out a way to get that information before they get to the voting booth."
The main design focus for the voting app was on making it as easy to use as possible. "The emphasis was on speed of input and clarity of information," Tannen says, "entering data through photo capture of your ID, organizing content by elections, aggregating user choices into 'My Ballot' for ease of viewing." Theoretically, the voter app would pull your information straight off a picture of your driver's license, and being a registered voter would only be a few taps away—about the same amount of effort as ordering takeout on most food delivery apps.
When it came to designing an all-encompassing app for elections, Intuitive faced a few different challenges. One of the biggest: Deciding what color to make it. It had to look as neutral and unbranded as possible. "The obvious choice is to go red, white, and blue, but those are also the colors often used by candidates," Tannen explains. Red and blue tend to be associated with specific parties. In the end, the logo uses a the same speech bubble in the Intuitive Company's own logo, and the apps's interfaces are mostly blue and black. And it does look like a pretty generic, slick app. (In fact, its clean black background is ever-so-slightly reminiscent of Uber, which is about as generic as you can get these days.)
Another challenge was designing an app that leaves room for the ways voting technology might change over the next few years. Although research has shown smartphone voting could help make voting more accurate, it's unlikely we'll be getting a voting app anytime soon. American politicians can't even agree on the security of our current voting process—to add in the possibility of hacking a digital election would likely be politically untenable.
But ideally, Intuitive Voting could eventually become a way to actually cast a ballot via smartphone. The "My Ballot" function presented in the app could be your real, valid U.S. election ballot, and you could vote straight from the app. Until that happens, though, the function can be used to help people make decisions on their favorite candidates before they enter the voting booth. This would theoretically speed up the voting process, since people have already made their choices, meaning shorter wait times at the polls, another way to make casting a ballot a little more painless.
It's difficult to truly reform the way we cast ballots, because the United States doesn't have a uniform, federal voting process. Elections are state affairs, and Individual counties are often responsible for designing ballots and running elections, which is why the voting experience can vary so widely based on where you live. For example, a statewide reduction in early voting options, plus extremely long ballots, contributed to absurdly long wait times for Florida voters during the 2012 election. Bad ballot design in Palm Beach County, Florida, caused thousands of Democratic voters to accidentally cast a vote for the Reform candidate instead of Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.)
However, that could be changing. In the process, Intuitive Voting could become more than just a concept. Last year, an executive order from President Obama established a Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which released a report of recommendations in January on how to modernize and improve the voting process. The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society hopes to present the Intuitive Voting concept (along with others from the competition) to the commission for consideration.