Throughout this year I've been working with the Pew Center on the States and the Center for Governmental Studies on a project assessing the quality, quantity and timeliness of information available to voters on all 50 states and DC's election web sites. The purpose of this project is to promote election web sites that help voters get registered, find out what's on the ballot, and participate effectively in elections. It's been an incredible learning experience and I'm looking forward to seeing the results being published in 2011. In the meantime, Pew's Electionline plans to release a preview of some of our findings later this month.
This week I'm in Austin for a Pew conference with state election web site staff and gave a presentation on our project, featuring ten tips for state web site design. Here's the list:
1. Be direct. Don't fudge your information -- if something is required by law, such as re-registering to vote when you move, say "you must" or "it is required", not "you may wish to....".
2. Use common terms. "Early voting", for example, is generally understood to mean casting a ballot in person before Election Day. If states could use common terms and language to describe voting practices it would make the voting process less confusing for voters.
3. Avoid inadvertently “hiding” information from voters. In our research we found that many states have created special sections on their web sites for certain audiences, such as election administrators or candidates, but often these sections feature information that would be helpful for voters, too.
4. Be sure to link information and tools from all relevant pages. On many sites, voters in special circumstances, such as military/overseas voters, will be directed to a special page that is advertised as a "one-stop shop" for their voting needs. Too often such pages fail to link to other content on the site, such as voter registration status lookup tools, that would be useful to those voters.
5. Know your audience. Review web site usage statistics and search terms and ask someone outside your agency to try using your site (and watch them as they do so).
6. If maintaining more than one site, be sure to build links between them in both directions. Some state election offices build secondary sites designed especially for voters but often these sites do not link back to the official election web site where additional, helpful information can be found.
7. Avoid publishing multiple pages on the same topic. Too often states add new content without considering similar or related content that already exists on their sites. This can cause confusion for voters.
8. Be sure to fully advertise your site tools and features. Many states have recently added new lookup tools that allow voters to check their absentee ballot or voter registration status. Such additions will often be announced on the election web site homepage but not linked to from other relevant pages or listed on the tool interface among its functionalities.
9. If featuring information in PDF format, offer it in HTML as well. Many states publish forms online in PDF format, such as voter registration forms, and those forms will include lots of information that would be helpful to voters about eligibility and registration. It's best if this information can be featured in HTML as well so voters can more easily find it. PDF files are often difficult to search or access for many people.
10. Archive your election content. Some states remove ballot information once the election is over, but this historical information can be extremely useful to the public. One way to structure a site so it can be easily archived is to use a redirect address so the ballot information is located in a permanent place online and the redirect page sends web site visitors to the most current ballot information. For example, the state can set up a redirect page at http://www.state.us.gov/vote and tell that page to send visitors to http://www.state.us.gov/elections/2010/general/index.html.