Talking to voters

By Magda Kura

TurboVote is busy at work covering local elections nationwide this year. Hundreds of thousands of election messages will go out to TurboVote users so they’re ready to take part. But informing voters about their elections is just the first step to helping them vote; because simply knowing that an election is happening isn’t enough. The voting process can be confusing, complex, and sometimes difficult. That’s why we’re studying exactly what support voters need to register and cast their votes with confidence. First-time voters have different needs from experienced voters, and people live complex lives with changing ZIP codes and names, all of which affect their ability to vote with ease.
We set out to interview voters to identify their voting struggles with the goal of gathering the kind of information TurboVote should be providing users in the future. Our methodology? A mix of in-person user studies in California, New York, and Pennsylvania, as well as post-election user surveys in Texas. In total, we interviewed 21 users and received 146 survey responses.
How did we do it? We started with a few questions about the last election in which our users voted. We asked them to identify any problems, struggles, or memorable confusion about the process. Here is what we learned:

  • Our friends and family help us get started. Several participants mentioned a family member who helped them navigate the voting process, like parents who helped them register for the first time or siblings who helped them figure out who to vote for.

“I talked to my dad and my sister to get the information I needed to vote for the first time. My dad helped me on the paperwork and my sister helped me figure out who to vote for.” - participant from California study

  • We have complex address stories. Participants reported they live in one area, have an ID from another area, and prefer to vote in yet another area. Many interviewees were not aware they needed to re-register every time they moved, if they plan to vote in the new location.

“I live on campus, but I prefer to vote from my home district.” - participant from New York study

“I was registered in Orange, not Marin [county]. When I went to the polls, I filled out a provisional ballot but the poll worker called me to tell me that my vote did not count.” - participant from California study

  • Voting by mail is confusing. Most of the interviewees did not understand the absentee voting process. Most believed they had no option but to make it to the polls on Election Day.

“I didn’t vote in the last election because I was busy working. I always miss elections because I am frequently away for business and can’t show up to the polls.” - participant from Pennsylvania study

  • We struggle with the logistical side of voting. Most participants had trouble identifying their options for voting as well as describing registration rules or voter ID laws. They rarely knew their polling locations. Additionally, no participant had a single source of election information; they relied on a number of outlets, including friends and family, Google search, or an institution they trust.

“We should be allowed to vote wherever we happen to be. Having to vote at our precinct makes it difficult for those of us that can't plan ahead.” - participant from Texas survey

  • We want to see the ballot ahead of the big day. Participants who voted in the past were always surprised to see unfamiliar names on the ballot. In the future, they wanted to see the actual ballot ahead of Election Day.

“Last November, I didn’t know how to vote in the alternate categories - I didn’t even know what the other categories were. I think I voted for senators.” - participant from California study

Next, we asked participants to identify how TurboVote could help eliminate the anxiety and confusion they described in the first part of the interview.

Let’s suppose you have an upcoming election. TurboVote is committed to sending you all of the information you need to make you feel prepared to vote. What kind of information would you need? Select from the list below:

  1. Add election to your personal calendar with one click

  2. Registration deadline

  3. Absentee ballot request form deadline

  4. Sample ballot

  5. Polling place location and hours

  6. Election results

Participants found all of the proposed notifications to be useful. By far, polling location hours and access to a sample ballot were ranked as the most important information for voters. Voters want to see the actual ballot ahead of Election Day, which suggests a high level of anxiety – voters are intimidated by the ballot itself.
When asked to suggest any other reminders that would help them vote, users suggested we offer more information about options to vote early, like adding early voting deadlines with text and email reminders. 
What’s next? This is a great start to our research, but we need more data. We plan to continue our user studies throughout the summer, and welcome any organization that would like to collaborate with us on this project. If you are interested in assisting with our user testing, please contact us at

Of course, we had our personal favorite comments among the feedback...

"This is amazing! Thank you all so much!"

Brandon Naylor