The UX problems that keep people from voting

4 min read
Aaron Ghitelman
  •  Jun 21, 2019
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Registering to vote in the US takes less time than heating a Hot Pocket.

When you have help, at least.

That’s a big caveat, though, because without a trained expert walking you through the form, it can be pretty confusing. And then the process is more like baking bread from scratch.

Not all of us are good at baking bread, and not all of us are able to fill that form out solo. The folks stuck going at it alone are often society’s most isolated—the under-educated and economically disadvantaged. The ones who won’t find themselves in a space where someone is around armed with a voter registration form.

The UX problems plaguing voter registration forms can’t be separated from the ever-increasing amount of people who aren’t voting. Often not because they don’t want to—because they can’t figure out how.

HeadCount has been helping Americans register to vote since 2004, and I’ve been running our external communications and registering voters for a little over four years now. In that time I’ve registered thousands of voters at dozens of events, plus hundreds of thousands through online tools I’ve directed people towards, so I’m confident when I tell you that the registration process takes under two minutes.


“The UX problems plaguing voter registration forms can’t be separated from the ever-increasing amount of people who aren’t voting.”

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When I’m helping someone fill out a voter registration form at a show, it’ll usually take about 90 seconds to complete. When I’m not around, though, we have a problem.

Where paper and screen meet

The two voter registration methods I’ll discuss are on paper and digital.

Each state has its own set of voter registration laws, with their own voter registration form design—in addition to what is known as the “national” form, which works in all 50 states. The creation of the national form was part of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the “Motor Voter Act.”

50 ways to register voters (Addressing inconsistencies)

The national form is pretty revolutionary in that it allows organizations like HeadCount to register voters across the country without the cumbersome burden of carrying 50 different sets of forms everywhere. Because every state has its own thing. And 50 things is a lot to handle.

However, in order for the national form to satisfy all 50 states’ rules, the language has to be vague—and often misleading.

Look at the federal form above: it’s unclear what ID numbers you need to put in the “ID Number” section, since that varies from state-to-state. Same with the “choice of party” section.

For an example of the state-by-state inconsistencies, whereas Tennessee requires you to list your full social security number, while New York only requires your state ID number (drivers license number) or the last four numbers of your SSN, while Oklahoma requires BOTH your state ID number and the last four of your SSN. Confusing, isn’t it?

Whether they’ve chosen the long form or the confusing one, left to their own devices, the user is going to be stuck filling out this form for a while. The longer users spend filling out a form, the less likely they are to finish it. Relying on vagueness for utility means that the federal form has some big, gaping UX holes.

There are some advantages to the federal form, though—like how surprisingly un-intimidating it is. It’s one page, can be printed on 8.5×11 paper, and only the top half of the form needs to be filled out for new voters who have a home address. And, unlike the state-specific form, a physical copy needs to be mailed in.

The New York state-specific form, however, is long and clunky, but it’s very specific and easy to fill out. While the federal form uses the vague phrase “ID Number,” for example, the state form specifies which ID numbers work.

Voters love them some details.

Same with Party Affiliation: where the federal form doesn’t list all the parties, the New York state form does.

Can you read this list out loud five times fast?

The state form itself is this fairly long thing printed on blue paper, and though it requires nothing more than the (significantly shorter-looking) federal form, it is printed at double the length.

What’s better—a short and objectively confusing form, or a long and simple form that looks confusing until you get started?

Compromising design for function

The paper state and federal voter registration experiences are practically yin and yang, except the experiences can’t be combined to make a perfect whole. So what’s more important, an inviting appearance or a clear registration flow?

The online and paper voter registrations have something in common: big ole UX problems. To mitigate these problems, in 14 states there are third parties that design their own voter registration tools, like Rock the Vote and TurboVote (which are both tools hosted on HeadCount’s website).

Why only 14, you ask? These are the states that don’t have online registration. For states that do, like New York State, these solutions don’t always work; instead, you’re often sent back to the state’s website. Which is ugly.

Do you want to look at this? Because I don’t want to look at this.

Their website states that the average transaction time is five minutes—which is twice as long as the process of signing up in person.

Even looking at the state page feels intimidating, with the legal warnings being larger than the fields to be filled out.

Much legalese. Many fear.

Ostensibly to maintain security, the online NYS form requires personal information that the printed form doesn’t, including something known as your “Driver License Document Number” which is a tiny number on the back of your ID. If you don’t have a license, learner’s permit, or any other form of state ID, back you go to the federal form.

Can’t drive? Walk your way to the federal form.

How UX can empower the disenfranchised

Why does this matter? Well, look at the people who aren’t voting. They’re younger than the voting population. They’re poorer than the voting population. They’re less educated than the voting population. They’re those who have been hurt most by widening income inequality.

Better design, making registering easier‚this is what would level the playing field. It would help make our government more responsive to the needs of all Americans.

With 2020 in our reach, we need to take this seriously and act fast. These forms need to be accessible, simple, and clear. Which is where design, and designers, come into play. Because until we come up with concrete solutions to disrupt voter registration, nothing will move.

What can you do now, as a designer? Reach out to your congressional representatives and tell them what’s wrong. Email your voting boards. Share your thoughts on social. Let your expertise make these problems solvable.

But for now, we’ll be at thousands of events a year, walking hundreds of thousands of Americans through this process. And if you’d like, you can join us.

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