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Michelle Brown

Michelle Brown

Experience Architect

Why is it so hard to vote in the US election?

What really goes on in the voting process for many Americans?

For those of you living under a rock, the United States is having an election on November 8th. As this date is rapidly approaching, I thought I’d cover the difficulty some American voters will need to face in order to get their votes in. When President Obama said that registering to vote was not difficult he was clearly not thinking of voting abroad.

No one knows exactly how many United States citizens are living abroad, but we can safely say that it’s in the millions. Due to US citizenship law, a lot of these citizens have never been to the United States before but have citizenship through their parents. These citizens face particular difficulty when trying to vote.

Now a lot of this problem stems from the fact that even though the word ‘united’ appears in the country name, there’s not much unitedness going on. Every single state has a different process to voting and this is a shame. While the Federal Voting Assistance Program is not doing the best job they could to make this easy, I do have to acknowledge that they have their work cut out for them.

Figuring Out The Process

With a quick Google search you will probably end up on the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) website. Here, a friendly looking banner lets you know that the process is an easy two steps.

Step 1: Register and request your absentee ballot with the federal post card application

What is a federal post card application you might ask? An application to request nice post cards of Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty? No, it has absolutely nothing to do with post cards.

I’d ask why they couldn’t come up with a better name for this form, but they did. If we look at the application, the first line in the form says “Voter Registration and Absentee Ballot Request”. That’s a great name. It let’s you know exactly what the form is about. Why is the official name of the form not this?

Remember when I mentioned those Americans who have never lived in the US? They become important here.

Let’s say both of your parents are American and last lived in Alabama.

Congratulations! You are a US citizen and have to file US tax no matter where you live.

As a US citizen, you might decide to vote in US elections. Except, Alabama does not recognize your right to vote. Unless your parents lived in one of the 37 states listed here, you’re out of luck (I won’t get into the irony of this situation).

So, let’s assume you’re not one of the Americans denied the right to vote. How should you complete the above form? Well, it depends.

And this is where it gets confusing. If you just download the PDF document and try to fill it out, you can’t. In the instructions you are told that there are multiple ways to fill this out depending on state, but you aren’t told which state prefers what.

So you head back online and try to look up your state’s instructions. Which will bring you to a page like this.

Great, there’s a section called “Use Maine’s Online Tools” in a box for registering to vote. So you click that and end up on Maine’s website.

So far you feel like things are going pretty well, there’s a button to submit an online request. Once you click that though, the good times end, and it’s back to that Post Card application, because in order to use this tool you have to already be registered to vote in the state of Maine.

So you go back to the FVAP website, hoping for another way. This time you try the option that says “Use FVAP’s Online Assistant”.

I’m actually going to give FVAP credit here. They attempted to make a wizard that would simplify the process of filling out the form. This is a good idea and I encourage it.

However, things don’t always work quite as expected. Below you can see a helpful link to lookup your county if you don’t know what that is. However, if you click on that you are taken to the census bureau’s quick facts.

This has absolutely nothing to do with counties in Maine.

If I wanted to find out the average time a US resident takes to get to work this would have been a great link. Unfortunately, at the moment, this is completely useless.

So back to Google to figure out which county a particular city is in. With any luck you can figure out all the information that your state requires of you and you make it to the final screen of the wizard.

Yes, the online assistant requires a printer. This is a bit of a problem for me as I do not own one.

This process would be so much simpler if at this stage you just had a button to submit. Instead you either have:

  • to hunt down a printer in order to send it by regular mail
  • or hunt down a printer and scanner to email it.

The Mailing Process

Let’s say you decide to go through with the mailing process.

“This PDF package even includes a pre-addressed and postage-paid label so you don’t have to worry about finding stamps!”  The FVAP proudly proclaims on their website.

Allow me to point out a major problem with this statement.

This form is specifically for overseas voters. It’s only free if you mail it in the US Postal system.

Not only is it a little cruel to say that postage is free, when it effectively is not, but it’s also misleading. Someone could stick their application in a postal box expecting it to be sent and end up never getting to vote.

The other tricky thing about sending in your ballot request by mail is that you have to be planning this twelve weeks in advance. The United States recommends allowing 4 weeks for your materials to arrive at the elections office. If you decide you want to vote closer to the election, then requesting a ballot by mail is no longer an option for you.

The Emailing Process

This is the method I went with, as I was trying to not spend any money getting this done and I was doing it last minute.

You have to sign an additional document stating that you waive your right to a secret ballot, scan all your signed documents, and send all this secret information to a government email address.

Come on.

Applying for a Shoppers Optimum Card feels more high tech than this.

Several days later, I received an email confirming that my documents had been received and that as I requested an online ballot, I would be receiving an email about that later.

More time went past before the day finally arrived for step 2.

Step 2: Fill out and send in your ballot when it arrives

I got an email from the government of Maine that contained a link to get my ballot. This email also contained both my username and password to login, which I found a little unusual.

So I clicked on the link and was brought to this page.

I copied and pasted my username and password from the email and hit login. The next page was not what I expected.

Yes. It was the return of the printing and signing.

I clicked the download button and was back to finding a printer.

When I had first envisioned the online option, it involved me selecting candidates online, hitting submit, and being done. This was more work than I had signed up for. In fact, this entire process was more work than I signed up for, but I’d invested too much time to quit now.

I followed the submission instructions and sent my ballot in by email. I got a confirmation email that my ballot had been received and I was done.

Several days later a large envelope arrived in the mail.

It was my ballot. Again.

In addition to sending my ballot by email, like I requested. They also decided to send it in the mail. It was a good thing I got that confirmation email, because otherwise I’d be concerned that they hadn’t received my ballot and were trying alternative means to reach me.

Hopefully sending my ballot by mail is a legal requirement, because ignoring my request and wasting postage is a little bit confusing for the recipient.

Now What

It is not necessary to make this process so difficult.

If I want to vote online, I should be able to accomplish this in minutes with just a computer and internet connection. Applying to University shouldn’t be easier than voting.

FVAP, while you are by far the most helpful resource in the assisting voters, you could be doing better. If you want to work to close the difficultly gap between overseas voters and resident voters here are my suggestions:

  • Hide the complexity of each state’s requirements

The voter doesn’t need to know how each state differs from each other. They only ever need to see the information that is related to their particular state. You were on the right track with the online assistant and should carry that thinking to the rest of your process.

  • Simplify your instructions

Often instructions are entire pages of information meant to serve everyone. Instead of making a single daunting page, remove unnecessary information and just provide the needed instructions. For example, I received the above instruction sheet even though I indicated that I wanted to vote online. Providing me with mailing directions is not necessary and distracts me from what I need to know.

  • Make your online flow online

I shouldn’t have to have a printer and a scanner to vote. The process should be made more easily accessible to all overseas voters. Not just the wealthy or the sighted. I should be able to go through the entire process online at a library computer with a screen reader.

  • Make your offline flow offline

If I don’t have intranet and decide to get a physical copy of the form from my consulate, then provide me with all the instructions I need to fill out the form. The Federal Postcard Application does not currently give enough information on it to actually fill it out. In an ideal world, the form I receive from my consulate should be for the particular I need to send it to. It should only ask for the relevant information for that state.

  • Remember the context of your forms

Don’t tell me about your toll free fax line and free postage if I can only use them if I am in the US. Think about the process your voters actually have to go through to vote and match your forms to their needs.

Perhaps you could use some of your postage budget to fix this.

Are you an overseas voter? How did you find the process? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Michelle Brown

Michelle Brown

Experience Architect

Michelle believes that good design is like silence. You never seem to notice when it’s there, but its absence is always missed. With a thorough understanding of end users, Michelle Brown creates these silent designs that support users through every step of their journey. She delights in crafting pleasurable experiences through a variety of research and design methods and is always pleased to use her knowledge to take designs to the next level. Her experience spans wireframe creation, usability testing, persona development, design feedback, and card sorting. As an Experience Architect, she has proven that she can meet aggressive schedule objectives and deliver actionable results. Michelle has a MSc. in Computer Science with a specialization in Human Computer Interaction and is an Experience Architect at Akendi, a firm dedicated to creating intentional experiences through end-to-end experience design.


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