E-Vote: State Election Web Sites Have Significant Room for Improvement, Says Study

When voters cannot easily locate information online, it diverts limited resources to operate help lines which can cost as much as $100 per call in staffer time.

by / October 16, 2008

State election Web sites are often too difficult for voters to find and use to answer questions such as whether they are registered to vote, where to vote and what will be on the ballot, according to a new study released today by the Pew Center on the States. "Being Online is Not Enough: State Election Web Sites," a 50-state analysis examining election Web site usability, finds that when voters cannot easily locate information online, it diverts limited resources to operate help lines which can cost as much as $100 per call in staffer time. The report, produced by Make Voting Work, a joint initiative of the Pew Center on the States and the JEHT Foundation, offers recommendations to improve state Web sites before Election Day.

"State election offices have made considerable strides in getting Web sites up and running. Yet as more and more Americans seek information online, it is no longer enough for election offices merely to put information online," said Michael Caudell-Feagan, director of Make Voting Work. "Voters are turning to the Web with basic questions about how to cast their ballot. And our study shows that state Web sites need to do a better job in meeting those needs. There are simple things outlined in this report that every state can do to improve services and make the democratic process easier."

Researchers with the Pew Center on the States, in conjunction with Nielson Norman Group, a leading Internet usability firm, measured the usability and effectiveness of state election Web sites based on key benchmarks including:

  • How easily users can locate the site on the Web
  • How easy it is for users to navigate through the site and understand content
  • How well the homepage is organized
  • How easy it is for users to search the site
  • How well the site incorporates online tools to further help users locate information.

Based on these criteria each site was assigned a usability score, ranging on a scale from 1 to 100.

Some of the study's key findings include:

  • The average usability score for election Web sites in the 50 states
    and the District of Columbia is 58 percent -- ranging from a high of
    77 percent (Iowa) to a low of 33 percent (New Hampshire)
  • When using popular search engines such as Google, only 34 states
    appear as the first search term when searching for "voting in [STATE
    NAME]"; and only 38 official state Web sites appear as the first
    search result when users enter in their state name with "polling
  • Thirty-four states have a poll locator tool, but only 11 states will
    identify a polling location for any address in the state -- helping
    voters to easily find the basic information they will need to vote
  • Half the states including the District of Columbia (53 percent) offer
    a way for users to verify their registration online
  • By not improving their sites, states are missing an opportunity to
    save money on voter telephone help lines -- up to $100 per call

These findings are especially troubling given the increasing tendency of Americans to use the Internet for information about the public sector. According to the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, nearly two-thirds of voters use the Web to answer their questions about government. In addition, the increased interest in this election combined with the influx of new voters is driving a need for information.

The report also includes recommendations for improvements and provides details about the Voting Information Project (VIP), a joint effort of state and local election officials, Make Voting Work and

Google Inc., that aims to bring official voting information -- polling place locations, ballot content and information about registration and absentee ballots -- directly to voters via the Internet. Currently, six states have made official data available using VIP and several more states are in development.

"We know that, on average, people spend less than two minutes on a Web site before they give up on their search for information," said Kil Huh, research project director at the Pew Center on the States and a lead researcher on the report. "Too many of the Web sites we visited included historical information, inadequate search functions and mislabeled links that may prevent locating what users need. If voters turning to the Internet can't easily find the information they need to cast their ballots in November, it could drive up the volume of calls and, thus, costs to election officials with limited resources."

Make Voting Work conducted its research in conjunction with the Nielson Norman Group, a leading Internet usability firm, and used commonly accepted standards for Web search and usability. To develop benchmarks for usability criteria, data were initially collected and analyzed between September 4-15, 2008 and reevaluated between October 6-7, 2008 from state election Web sites.