Today, an estimated half a million people in New Hampshire will go to the polls to vote in the Republican and Democratic primaries, and in the weeks ahead, many other Americans will vote as well. Depending on where you live, you’re guaranteed to get a totally different voting experience compared to someone in another state, or even another county. That’s because the physical design of polling stations varies wildly across the U.S.: they’re located in libraries, civic centers, grocery stores, and other random places, and there isn’t a universal set of rules that tells officials how to set up polling stations. But new research suggests that the design of polling stations is critical to the voting process—and if we don’t design these places well, some people may decide not to vote.
Just like an ATM machine or public transportation, polling stations are systems, and their poor or great design could influence whether voters use them. When people deal with a badly designed system—one that’s inconvenient, confusing, or takes too much time—they might make mistakes or avoid the system altogether. The problem with polling stations is that people can’t just switch to a different location—they have to use the one to which they’re assigned (unless they vote by mail). Rice University researchers Claudia Acemyan and Phil Kortum say this all-or-nothing situation, along with a poorly designed system, could disenfranchise people. Since there currently aren’t general design standards for polling places, they’ve set out to create a set of guidelines, based on science.
In order to discover what makes the best design, the researchers measured people’s preferences for different physical layouts of polling stations. In their recent study, published in the Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, they asked 35 students at Rice University to rate how usable polling places seemed to them, based on photo renderings. In the renderings, Acemyan and Kortum varied the configuration of voting machines in the room (two rows facing each other, one row facing the back wall, or one row facing the entrance), the amount of space between voting machines (0.75 meters, or no space), and whether the voting machines had dividers. The researchers used renderings instead of an actual physical room so that they could tightly control for other variables that might influence people’s perceptions of usability, like lighting or the density of people in the room.
When Acemyan and Kortum analyzed students’ ratings of the different environments, they saw a clear (and perhaps not surprising) trend. People thought the most usable polling stations were ones with dividers, with space between the voting machines, and with one row of voting machines placed so that voters faced the entrance. The researchers also found that people rated the two rows of voting machines facing each other as the least usable, compared to other configurations.
The researchers didn’t test for a mechanism, but they have several possible explanations for why people might think certain physical designs make for better polling stations. One idea: The highest-rated design offered the most privacy—when voters face the entrance, and have some space and physical barriers, they perhaps feel others can't see their vote. Other possibilities are that people thought certain physical designs would reduce the number of distractions they’d have to deal with when they vote, or they felt it would take them less time and effort to vote in that space. Or maybe people just liked the overall aesthetic of a certain design, and they believed that since someone put more care into designing it, the system would be more usable. (And of course, there are likely other factors the researchers didn’t test for that also influence perceptions of a real-world polling place, like how crowded it is, whether it has parking, as well as the design of the voting machines.)
It’s important to note that this study only looked at people’s "anticipated usability" of a system—it didn’t directly measure how well they used the system. Ted Selker, a researcher who studies voting system design and who co-directed the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project, says that he would like to see how people performed with the system. "They found out how people felt as opposed to watching them go through the process," he says. But Kortum and Acemyan note in their study that people’s perceptions of a system play a part in their experience with it.
They also acknowledge this is just the beginning of their work on this topic. "This research was to put a first stake in the ground to understand, ‘Does it even make a difference?,’" says Kortum, "And if it does, then that suggests that we need additional research to understand how this can impact people." Both Selker and researcher Andrew Dillon agree this is an important area of research that more people should be concerned about. "We’ve got lots of evidence that people have made mistakes or had their votes disqualified in the past because of usability issues," says Dillon, a professor at the School of Information at the University of Texas, Austin. "If there’s a possibility that through design we can disenfranchise certain sections of the community, then we need to attend to these possibilities so that everyone feels the voting system is as fair as it could be."
And that’s exactly what Acemyan and Kortum intend to do. They’re continuing their research so that one day they can create a detailed set of design guidelines for officials to follow. It would recommend things like, "voting booths should be X inches apart." "One could imagine a polling station worker would have a checklist, based on science," says Kortum. "Now, I’m not saying we have to make polling stations perfect, but we need to make the user feel like the systems are going to work for them." Acemyan seconds that: "Most importantly, we want to make sure there aren’t any deterrents that might make people decide they don’t want to come back and vote."
Cover Photo: Burlingham via Shutterstock