Just when we weren’t looking, something interesting caught the eye of one of the team members working on our election websites study. Consistent with other data about elections where we see that minority voters are less likely to show up at the polls, are more likely to have to cast a provisional ballot, and more likely to have their ballots rejected, our data strongly suggest that voters who live in mostly-minority counties are less likely to find the answers to their questions about elections on their local government websites.
We’ve been looking at the usability of local election websites across the US. When we chose our sample — because we are sane people for the most part, we decided that reviewing more than 3,000 local election websites might be more than we could take on — we chose based on Census Bureau data. We selected counties that had high populations and low populations, were densely populated by area or sparsely populated by area, and were mostly minority or mostly white. The batch ended up being 147 websites covering every region of the country.
Part of our research was to look for key words that might help voters find answers to their questions about elections. So we documented every link, heading, and graphic on the home pages for our 147 county election department websites in September and October 2012. Overall, we had more than 8,000 items from that cataloging to sift through.
When we dug through it all, we saw some interesting trends in the mostly-minority counties.
The vast majority of the differences we saw trend in the same direction — a direction in which voters in mostly-minority counties suffer. While the differences in terms of percentages aren’t huge, the trend is consistent, and considering the margin of victory in some recent elections, the differences might be important. The explanation may be as simple as there being fewer resources in mostly-minority counties to develop better websites. But it’s hard to tell what’s going on. When we looked at the sizes of the counties we catalogued sites for, the effect is not just for small counties. In fact, on average the smallest mostly-minority counties actually had more key words on their election home pages than mostly-white counties of the same size.
We used the words in links, headings, and graphics as a way to easily compare the types of content on wildly different websites in a huge range of counties, boroughs, parishes, and towns. Though we catalogued key words on websites, this study is really about access to information. We know that websites are not the whole picture.
Election officials have many other ways to communicate with voters — from brochures to town newspapers. But the disparity we saw made us wonder if the websites also reflect the type of information available overall. It just happens that 61 of the websites we catalogued are for jurisdictions that are subject to section 203 (language discrimination) of the Voting Rights Act; 35 are from jurisdictions subject to section 5 (which requires them to “preclear” changes to election procedures with the Department of Justice). Are there election “information deserts”? And if there are, how can we fix that?
For more on the project, you can read:
Usability of County Election Websites, our academic paper to the Human-Computer Interaction International 2013 conference.