Strengthening Democracy Through Design
American elections have a participation problem. With one of the lowest turnout rates among developed countries, the world’s wealthiest democracy is far from the world’s most politically engaged.
This is particularly true for young, first-time voters between 18-24, who vote at rates consistently and significantly lower than other age groups. But that doesn’t mean they are unimportant: given there are 10.7 million more eligible voters in 2016 than there were in 2012, this segment of the electorate is growing in both size and influence.
Democracy Works, a New York nonprofit, grapples with these weighty issues every day. Dedicated to making voting easier, the nonpartisan organization is striving to reach 80% voter turnout by 2020 (in 2012, during the last presidential election, it was 57.5%). Playing a central role in reaching that goal is TurboVote: an online tool developed and maintained by Democracy Works that invites would-be voters to sign up to receive election notifications and important, location-specific voting information, as well as help users through the registration process.
Through partnerships with hundreds of schools and corporations, plus high-profile endorsements from entities like Starbucks, Snapchat, and even President Obama, TurboVote has been in the spotlight this presidential election cycle.
Despite its successes and imperative, Democracy Works lacked the resources and design experience to explore improvements that would better meet the needs and motivations of first-time voters during a pivotal election year.
To help fill the gap, Democracy Works commissioned SAP’s Design & Co-Innovation Center (DCC), a global team that provides design and innovation services to a wide variety of organizations. Over several months, the Palo Alto-based DCC team of researchers and designers conducted in-person interviews with 18-22-year-olds, observed how these young people engaged with the platform, and did secondary research.
“The team brought a set of fresh eyes that we needed at a moment like this,” said Kathryn Peters, Co-founder of Democracy Works. “It was invaluable to hand the product over to someone who isn’t involved with it 24/7 and get the 30,000 foot view.”
Among a number of findings, the study revealed three key behavioral trends that heavily influence whether young voters actually cast a ballot or not. The DCC then provided design recommendations to address each one – and help push more people to the polls.
It’s a Group Thing
The strongest trigger to registering and getting someone to take that next step to cast a vote is when the “nudge” comes from someone they know. The design team recommended making it easier for users to share TurboVote with their personal connections through social media and email-share buttons with pre-populated yet personable content.
Be Where All the Action Is
Even though young people recognize the inherent bias of peer vetted information, most political content they consume and share happens online. The design team advised TurboVote to become part of the conversation and meet voters at the source of political dialogue by establishing partnerships with popular media entities like Buzzfeed and Snapchat, and aggregating or creating native content on key social channels.
Creating a Sense of Place
While young citizens found voter registration to be relatively easy, they struggled to know what to do before and after, often feeling lost in the process. The DCC design team recommended design changes to give users a better sense of place—walking them through the process with clear steps, providing feedback along the way, and sharing information to get users across that “last mile” to the voting booth.
The team learned that, in an age where just about everything is done online, the registration and voting process, which at some point must involve either sending a letter or physically showing up to a polling location, presents an especially difficult challenge for digital natives. In facilitating this foray into an unfamiliar, analog world, TurboVote has the opportunity to address many of the difficulties inherent in a voting system that has not kept up with the times.
Voting statistics for young people may be bleak, but TurboVote’s success suggests there is hope. In 2012, the national turnout rate was 57.5%, while of the people who signed up for TurboVote, 75% turned out. Of the people who updated an existing voter registration through the platform, 83% voted.
“If you want more people to vote, overhaul the entire electoral process,” said Sarah Fathallah, project lead and Senior Designer at SAP’s Design & Co-Innovation Center. “If you can’t do that, then making the existing system easier to navigate is the next best option. We hope the redesigned TurboVote experience does that for voters.”
Democracy Works has implemented many of the DCC’s highest-priority design recommendations to its TurboVote platform in time for the 2016 elections, and over half a million people have signed up in 2016 alone. Only time will tell how these numbers will translate to actual votes on election day.