New Citizens: Adding Usability to the Voter Registration Process

As I wrote last time, I had the wonderful opportunity to observe a citizenship oath ceremony. It had a big emphasis on voting, and included San Francisco elections department people on hand to help the new citizens register to vote. Today, I wanted to share the flip side of what I saw, and I want to start to connect it to some election technology work that we’re doing now — work that I think can deliver some real public benefit.

After the ceremony, I saw a real distinction between two groups of people. One group was clearly enthusiastic about voting as a benefit of their new citizenship. Some had already filled out the somewhat cramped and confusing voter registration application form from the packet of many administrative documents they were handed earlier. Others very sensibly got some help in filling out the forms by walking up the the table where the elections division folks were offering to help people with the form. Either way, most of them were very appreciative of the elections folks being there to help and to make sure that the completed forms got to the right place quickly.

Another group was markedly un-interested, despite the encouragement to vote, in the dealing with yet another form, more government officials, and an additional disclosure of personal info to yet another part of the government. I found it sad but understandable. But for part of this group I also felt frustrated, because I was seeing right in front of me a form of barrier to franchise, albeit largely unintentional. The enthusiastic group tended to be younger, more voluble and confident speaking English (for most of the new citizens, English is a second or third language – about 2/3 of the new citizens that day were born in El Salvador, Mexico, or the Philippines), and more technologically literate (if fiddling with a smart phone is a sign of that). The rather sizable less enthusiastic group had a lot of grandparents being assisted by younger family or friends.

For these people, the application form might well be daunting: two pages of instructions in small font in addition to a form with little boxes that are hard to read for anyone, much less a user of reading glasses. And for those who actually read the instructions, there is some real confusion over whether you can vote if you lack a driver’s license or SSN. (I expect that some people lacked one or maybe both.) More vexing, the elections department people told me how conscious they were about people’s need for help in doing the application form correctly, and having to deal with more paperwork, and having to take the initiative to walk over to speak to more government people, in order to get the help.

In fact, one of them said that they wished they had the voter registration form on an iPad, and each of them could work the crowd with iPad in hand to get people filling the form with as large print as needed, in whatever language was convenient, with as much online assistance as possible, and no pages of daunting instructions. That really great idea really got to me, because I had 90% of it on my laptop in my backpack. I could have pulled out the laptop, which like an iPad, could be used for browser access the online voter registration assistance service that’s operated by RockTheVote, with OSDV/TrustTheVote technology that I helped build. We were so close to what the elections folks needed to be more helpful to the people standing right there!

But even with a few iPads and a printer and wireless network to connect them, the elections department folks would not quite have had what they need: an online voter registration (OVR) assistance system that is used by the government, not by an NGO that might (incorrectly) be construed as partisan. Particularly in the setting of the citizenship oath ceremony — outside, a madhouse of partisan political organizations clamoring for attention — the government folks need to be using government systems.

And they don’t have it, at least not most elections folks, even though it is so close.

So what we need to do is get this OVR technology delivered in a way that lots of elections officials can adopt quickly, adapt and localize quickly and easily, and get into production operation quickly and easily without having to spend a bunch of money, with all the government procurement hassles that that would entail.

We need to do that; the citizenship ceremony experience made that plain, as well as the government officials’ need, and so … well, so we are doing that, specifically, right now. More on details next time.


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