Voters in minority counties less likely to find answers on local election websites

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 looked at the home pages of election websites for 147 counties

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.

Insight: Mostly-minority counties’ election websites consistently had fewer key words that would help voters find answers

When we dug through it all, we saw some interesting trends in the mostly-minority counties.

  • Minority counties had 10% fewer items on county election website home pages on average than white counties did.
  • While 88% of the mostly-white counties had something related to registering to vote on the election website home page, this was true for only 76% of mostly-minority counties.
  • The key word “absentee” (as in “absentee ballot”) appeared on 55% of mostly-white counties’ websites, and 46% of mostly-minority counties’ sites.
  • “Ballot,” an important key word (could be part of “sample ballot,” “absentee ballot,” or “provisional ballot,” etc.) for an elections website in the weeks leading to a major election, appeared on 70% of election websites of mostly-white counties, but only 54% of election websites of mostly-minority counties.
  • We also looked at what we called the “super mail combo,” which counted anything that looked like “vote by mail,” “absentee,” or “mail voting,” as well as other, related terms. Any of the terms showed up on 65% of election websites for mostly-white counties and 57% of mostly-minority counties.
  • Interestingly, “polling place” was one of the few key words in our study with a trend in the other direction. It showed up on 35% of the mostly-white county websites and 49% of the mostly minority county websites.
  • “Espanol” was equal, appearing on 13% of election websites for both mostly-white and mostly-minority counties.

Is there an election “information desert”?

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.

A slide deck showing data for where and how often key words appeared on county election websites in November 2012.

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