Messages and guides: What helps voters become well informed

Connecting voters with nonpartisan local voter guides for informed voting.

Can a voter guide help someone struggling to understand what will be on the ballot, and the implications of their choices, find the information they need to make a decision about how to vote?

The project combined the voter services and timely reminders of TurboVote with local voter guides from e.thePeople, for comprehensive voting support—from registration to casting a ballot. We helped guide this work with usability testing to learn what messages voters would open, and what links they would click on.

Then, in a deeper voter research project, we followed voters from around the country for the month around the election. Our goal was to understand the role that information like nonpartisan voter guides play in helping people prepare to vote or even motivate their participation.

We learned:

  • Useful information about local elections, candidates, and ballot questions is hard to find in many areas.
  • A voter guide in a concise, structured format fills a gap in the information many voters have, giving them just enough detail to make a choice or decide to learn more.
  • Voters want unbiased sources. They prefer to hear directly from the candidates and want to know who wrote the content, what contests are included, whether the information in the guide is complete.
  • Messages to let them know about the voter guides need to arrive early enough to be useful and need to invite action clearly.
  • The links to the guides need to explain their value and show enough of the web address to let voters trust they are worth visiting.

Messages voters will click on

Usability testing early in the project helped improve the communications voters received to make sure that the messages would be understood, well-received, and opened by as many recipients as possible.

We  ran usability tests shortly before elections in Maryland and California, looking at the details of the messages Turbovote would send.  Here’s what we learned:

  • The writing style had to be short and concise, whether in email or a text message. They said, “Sum it up. Be precise. Give me the options.”
  • The subject line worked best when they emphasized deadlines and gave voters a reason to take action. We thought questions would work, but people told us they sounded like spam.
  • To get voters to click on the links to the voter guides, links that displayed the name of the site along with the URL and links phrased an instruction worked well. Links that emphasized the organization worked least well, because the names were often not recognized.
  • The timing of the last message was crucial.  Participants wanted messages around critical deadlines: “a few days before” meant the message would be lost and “the day of the election” would be too late.

Understanding what makes an informed voter

For this part of the project, we wanted to go deep and follow voters through the month before the election. We wanted to know what information voters want as they prepare to vote, how they want that information and where they actually find it, and what motivates them to take action.

We ended up with a rich collection of data covering voting habits, attitudes about elections and local politics, how they navigate their personal networks and news sources, and the barriers they experience.

In this contentious election year, a “buzz” surrounded the election. Without altering their daily habits, voters came across many mentions of the election each day on social media, in the news, when chatting with friends, family, or coworkers, on TV, or even while out shopping.

The quantity of information could be frustrating and added to a general anxiety about the election. They also worried about finding trustworthy information, especially in light of all the discussion of fake news, and many questioned whether both news and campaign sources were accurate.

They used social media as a news feed as much as they used it for conversation. They followed newspapers on Facebook, or read links friends had posted.

Today’s mobile lives add to the confusion of keeping up with voter registration deadlines, knowing the rules for voting in primaries or things like straight-party voting, or learning about early voting or finding a polling place. Even basic election details can be hard to find, but several found the information right in Google search results.

Most of all, we learned how difficult it can be to find local election information, and how much people wanted a guide to help them understand what would be on their ballot and the choices they had available.

How we ran the project

The project kicked off with messages from TurboVote and on other social media that said:

How are you getting ready for the elections? The folks over at the Center for Civic Design are running a research study and would love to learn about how you are getting informed for the elections. Whether you are sick of hearing about the elections or are excited to vote on Tuesday November 8th, they want to hear from you.

We recruited 52 people in Maryland, Georgia, Texas, Ohio, Michigan and Washington State. Half were under 35, some were voting for the first time. We interacted with them by phone, email, and text message, starting with an interview about their voting experiences.

For the next 4 weeks, asked them to tell us about what they were seeing on social media, as they traveled around their neighborhood, in the news, or at the water cooler.

About 2 weeks before the election, we sent them links to an e.thePeople voter guide published in their local paper or on the League of Women Voters website.

And then it was Election Day. A few days later, we had a last conversation with them to get their insights into the election and their participation.