Learning how and where voters get information

Best practices for official voter information guides.

How do we get the right kind of information to potential voters at the right time, in the right place? While the problem of participation and engagement is larger than voter information, we can make voter information more effective, more inviting, and more useful.

Our research for the Future of California Elections explored how voters (including new voters, registered non-voters and potential voters) find information about elections, and what works — and doesn’t work — about their current sources. We learned that voters need information that helps them bridge civic literacy gaps, and gives them the information they need, in words they understand.

In time for the 2016 election, we worked with election departments in California to update voter guides with the best practice recommendations for the 2016 elections. Any election department can use the resources we have created to update their voter guides.

Resources for creating voter guides
Templates, samples, design guides, icons and illustrations to download

How Voters Get Information: Best Practices Manual for Official Voter Information Guides
Official report and webinars, created with the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund

Voter guides for the Primary Election

We used real content from three counties in California – Shasta, Santa Cruz, and Orange Counties – to continue to test and refine the design, creating templates, and testing them with voters in all three counties.

Although our original plan was to pilot the new voter guides in the three partner counties, there was enough interest to broaden the project. We ran half-day in-person training for 22 counties, and had follow-up consultations with individual counties. In all, we touched over 40 of the 58 counties with our education and outreach work.

After the primary, we reviewed the voter guides from all 58 counties. 33 adopted some part of the recommendations:

  • 7 counties created full or nearly complete guides based on the templates.
  • 23 counties adopted elements of the recommendations
  • 3 counties adopted materials made available by the Secretary of State

Report: Analysis of best practices for voter guides in the 2016 California Primary


Creating information for voters

This project explored how voters (including new voters, registered non-voters, infrequent voters, and potential voters) find information about elections, and what works (and doesn’t work) about their current sources to learn:

  • what sources of information voters use to learn about elections
  • what questions they ask, and how they ask those questions
  • what they find confusing about elections terminology and materials

All voters want to know what is on the ballot. They start with the questions, “what will I be voting for?” and, “How will the decisions we make in the election affect me?” But there are also differences in the information people need and want.

Non-voters  often do not know where to start, and look for trusted guides. They need to connect to the community, through:

  • civics literacy
  • demystifying the act and logistics of voting
  • justifying the value of voting
  • plain language
  • in-language materials

Infrequent voters need to connect daily life to issues and candidates, through:

  • simple, clear information about candidates and issues
  • details about options for voting

Avid voters need to connect to the democratic process. Make sure they have:

  • complete information
  • information about being a poll worker
  • encouragement to be role models

Most of all, voter guides must bridge a civic literacy gap, answering voters questions in plain language.

  • Information. Voters have knowledge gaps about every aspect of elections. In our research, person after person stumbled over both the terminology of elections and knowledge gaps in their basic understanding of elections.
  • Reach. Voters have many sources of elections information. Outreach includes where voters find information, who is talking to voters, and what relationships the many forms of elections information represent.
  • Experience. Elections are part of real lives and broader relationships with civic life, including emotional reactions such as fear, shame, avoidance, or lack of trust.

Research reports

Final report and recommendations for voter guides
The report from the initial research project summarizes the research insights and provides illustrated recommendations (2015).

We used a qualitative approach focused on observing users to understand whether and why a design (such as a voter information pamphlet or a website) works, or in what ways it does not. Our methods included:

  • information-gathering
  • open-ended (ethnographic) interviews
  • usability testing

We worked with 98 voters and non-voters and interacted with dozens of election officials, advocates and good government groups. We believe these methods allowed us to reach what we call the “point of least astonishment” and have produced meaningful results for this project.

Voter guides and sample ballots collection

We collected and analyzed the current voter guides to get a sense of the range of information and how it is presented to voters in California.  These voter guides were used as input and inspiration for our work to create a prototype for a guide that helps voters prepare for an election more effectively.  The collections are searchable, tagged Evernote databases

California 2014 Primary voter information pamphlets
Landscape analysis of 2014 voter guides (PDF)
Detailed dive into the data (PDF)

California voter information collection
Voter guides and sample ballots 2010-2013

Stakeholder input

We worked with state and county election officials, community advocacy and good government groups. At the beginning of the project, we interviewed 25 people to get their input on the questions voters ask, and how they answer them.

During the project, we conducted three workshops to gather feedback on our progress and gather additional input from a wide range of people with experience in voter information.

Research with voters and non-voters

We conducted two sets of research interviews with a wide range of voters, potential voters and infrequent voters around the state.

We conducted short research sessions with 53 people, collecting their preferences for what types of information they wanted, and what channels and formats worked best for them. These interviews took place in Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Modesto.

We designed a prototype voter guide and worked with it in 45 research sessions where we asked people to find answers to their questions about elections and talk to us about the experience. These sessions took place in Los Angeles County, Modesto and Berkeley. Participants included new citizens, people with low literacy, people with disabilities, and people who spoke Spanish and Chinese.

Research materials