Current Voter Information Landscape
Though voters’ engagement with traditional communication channels has changed with the internet’s near ubiquity, this change has not been equal. There are, therefore, many misconceptions around technological usage across the nation, where voters seek information, and how we’re failing to meet their concrete needs.
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How Are Voters Currently Being Informed?
Navigating electoral complexities has never been simple, and today’s digital communication landscape — including social media; news websites and apps; cable, satellite, and localTV; AM, FM, satellite, and internet radio — has done little to help. Information is more readily available than ever before, but this also means more voices in the room: the federal and local governments, politicians, campaigns, journalists, issue-based groups, civic organizations, late-night comedy hosts, and many more. Then there’s the unequal distribution of resources and technologies across the country that leads to privileging some mediums above others, as well as amplifying some sources over others.
A 2016 Pew poll reveals these complexities. The poll, discussing how voters learned about the then-ongoing 2016 presidential election, explores the 11 most-prevalent mediums (e.g., cable TV, social media, news, websites and apps, radio, etc.) across four major age demographics (i.e., 18–29, 30–49, 50–64, and 65+). The poll found that those between 18 and 29 identified social media as the most helpful type of source for election information; meanwhile, all other age groups named cable TV. The study also found that many people don’t know much about the election throughout much of the campaign season, and subsequently consume large amounts of information from many sources available to them closer to voting.
A more recent 2018 Pew poll shows social media overtaking the print newspaper as a source for politics among U.S. adults. While the study again highlights the pervasiveness of TV, it also notes that this medium is highly popular among older voters, a fact made more apparent from its drop to 49 percent, from 57 percent, in two years.
What people watch on TV varies by political persuasion and ascriptive background. An April 2020 Pew poll shows that an overwhelming 93 percent of U.S. adults who name Fox News as their main political news source identify as Republicans (or have Republican leanings); conversely, 95 percent of U.S. adults who name MSNBC as their main political news source identify as Democrats (or have Democratic leanings). Meanwhile, 29 percent of those aged 18 to 29 consume The New York Times regardless of their political orientation. The poll also shows that “women [are] more likely than men to turn to network TV outlets.” A March 2020 Pew poll teases apart discrepancies between Black and white democrats’ media diets, showing, for example, that “Black Democrats are less dependent than white Democrats on [The] New York Times, NPR, [and] more likely to turn to Fox News.”
Education Week conducted a 2018 poll similar to the one from Pew in 2016 in which surveyors asked, “What sources of information are you using to decide how to vote?” Responses included family, TV, social media (with individual percentage breakdowns for YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter), campaigns/candidates, schools, etc. This poll, however, fails to touch on source complexities; for example, the top response — “Family” at 38.7 percent — does not mention the sources from which those family members draw their own information: Do they read print journalism? Are they on social media? If so, which platform? Do they listen to the radio? If so, what kind, which channel, and where does the radio station get its information from?
While many of these studies don’t directly investigate where people seek out reliable voting information, they do illuminate citizens’ primary sources of information in general. To that point, the lack of specific information regarding voters’ habits speaks to the importance of our initiative.
What are the Needs of the Voters?
In 2015, the League of Women Voters (LWV) of California Education Fund published “How Voters Get Information: Best Practices Manual for Official Voter Information Guides in California” (further developed by the Center for Civic Design). The report explores the discrepancies between super-voters, sometimes-voters, and never-voters, stressing the role of plain language in mobilizing voters to the polls, the design of communications, and a pervasive lack of civic literacy among constituents. Implicated in all three are not just campaigns, which oftentimes cater to the highest denominator. The report demonstrates through heavily-illustrated appendices how all mediums can benefit from more efficient and transparent communication.
The LWV emphasizes that voters are oftentimes unfamiliar with jargon (e.g., “primary,” “endorsement,” “polls,” “split your vote,” redistricting,” “rebuttal,” “early voting,” etc.) crucial to understanding an election. New and infrequent voters don’t know where to start informing themselves: If presented with a sea of opaque wording and too many mediums, many would-be voters become overwhelmed and give up before they even start. It’s difficult to participate if the process fails to present an entry point at its outset. This is why the LWV emphasizes clear and concise writing. Voter education should cater itself to all eligible voters across the aisle, not to those who are already well versed in the process.
The LWV encourages any outlet communicating election-related information to constituents to create a simple road map that can convey basic information — the 101s that help voters do everything from registering to vote, to Election Day protocol — so that anyone can follow along. This process implies assessing appropriate levels of information; simple, informative organization; simple presentation; personalization; and the creation of content that builds upon itself to eventually close the civic literacy gap.
This kind of undertaking requires commitment and constant updating. If no two elections are the same, and if the mediascape continues to change, so too must voter education.
It comes, then, as little surprise that confusions around voting arise when there are so many variables: To whom should voters turn when they have questions? How does a voter know when they need new information? How do they know the new information they’re being given isn’t already out of date? How can they ensure that other voters are aware of new information?
These questions are what make informing, registering, and mobilizing citizens to vote difficult. Simply, these respective difficulties can be addressed by questions at each stage, questions of “where?,” “when?,” and “how?” to vote.
- The “When?” presents a number of unknowns. While “Election Day” is conveniently labeled on most calendars (printed and digital alike), this doesn’t take into account the long list of local deadlines voters are expected to meet before then. This is to say nothing of those voters with mail-in ballots who are unsure of when they can expect their ballots or when they need to return their ballots to ensure they arrive in time to be counted.
- Though the delicateness of the “Where?” precedes the current moment, the context of the pandemic has done little to offer a resolution. The location of polling centers has long been an issue for voters who are asked to travel long distances or take time off from work when neither are realistic options. Add to this the fear of being exposed to viral elements or the fact that polling centers can be moved on a whim for any number of reasons, and the current uncertainty becomes all the more threatening.
- While the “How?” poses itself in an innocent enough manner, the reality is far from simple. As the coronavirus continues to plague the nation, knowing whether your state has approved mail-in voting, and whether you’re eligible for mail-in voting, are both timely questions. It can be difficult to find reliable information when the mediascape, election officials, and the USPS are abuzz with contrasting answers.
In all these cases, it is immensely difficult to keep up-to-date information, and even more difficult to ensure that all eligible voters are contacted with correct and relevant materials. Countless organizations exist whose common aim is the registration and education of voters. What’s missing is good communication practices for those voters who are already registered, yet do not cast a ballot or eventually come to realize that their vote has not been counted.
The Other View: How Are Voters Not Getting the Information They Need?
Voters are too often not getting the information they need to cast a ballot. In assessing why this is, it is important to address the wrong assumptions that we collectively hold. We make a mistake in thinking that voters have easy and equal access to up-to-date information and that they understand the voting process well enough to assure that their vote counts.
First, not all voters have access to a smartphone, desktop or laptop computer, home broadband, or a tablet computer. A May 2019 Pew poll breaks down technology adoption by income, sampling for each of these devices. The poll shows that only 54 percent of Americans with an income of under $30,000 a year own a desktop or laptop computer; meanwhile, 56 percent of those in this demographic do not have broadband. There is a 71-percent adoption rate for smartphones among those earning under $30,000 annually, but, again, no broadband access suggests that users are likely subject to mobile phone data caps.
A May 2019 Pew poll breaks this down another way, showing that rural Americans have consistently lower levels of broadband adoption. Another 2019 Pew poll found that a growing share of non-broadband users cite their smartphone’s capabilities as a reason for not having home broadband — with “Smartphone does everything they need” increasing and “Cost of computer too expensive” decreasing from 2015 to 2019. These statistics do not, however, account for the quality of products owned and the speed of internet access available.
Another dangerous assumption is that voting by mail is self-explanatory. While mail-in ballots have been steadily gaining popularity since the 1990s — with Washington State and Oregon voting almost entirely by mail — the percentage of voters who have used the method is relatively low. Nonetheless, growing popularity fails to account for the types of human error that increase the number of mail-in ballots being rendered ineligible. These errors vary, whether a ballot is discounted because it arrives too late; because the voter forgets to sign it; or the signature doesn’t match the one on record.
Even if voters do everything according to instructions, they can’t necessarily predict the bureaucratic hurdles that make voting harder. A November 2018 Pew inquiry asked voters to define the various parts of voting they found most difficult. Tellingly, a little less than half (44 percent) of the respondents expected voting to be “‘very easy.” When asked why voting might be difficult, voters voiced a number of concerns, including last-minute changes to polling places; last-minute missing documents; long voting lines; and complicated phrasing on the ballots themselves.
One final, flawed assumption is that voters always have easy access to current information. While many voters turn to the State Department website for updates regarding their respective polling places, information on the website is not always updated. For example, 36 Pennsylvania counties altered their primary polling places amid the COVID-19 pandemic, changes which the State Department’s website did not adequately reflect. While individual counties’ websites did sometimes host the changes even though the State Department did not, checking a county board when so many additional resources exist is not necessarily the natural recourse for many voters, and checking it periodically is not a luxury all can afford. These alterations also refer only to those polling centers whose status or location has changed amid the pandemic — many more have closed in the wake of legislative changes.
While the shuttering of a longtime polling place is certainly newsworthy, it is often not covered in national outlets. The growing presence of news and information deserts, exacerbated by the increasing number of local news outlets that have permanently closed their doors, means there’s nowhere obvious for voters to seek updates. Two academics, Penelope Muse Abernathy and Michelle Ferrier, elucidate this point via a series of maps that depict today’s dearth of local news outlets.
Traditionally, people have developed a longstanding dependence on their local news media outlets to understand local happenings, which include changes in polling place locations, as well as voting dates and times. That national outlets fail to cover all local polling places is clearly understandable, yet in an age where local newspapers continue to fold, the void in coverage is no less startling.
While there exists large amounts of research about voting patterns, mediated biases, unequal access to technology, and unequal distribution of resources among citizens engaging in the U.S. electoral process, two failures are clear: one on the academic end and the other on the political end.
In the academy, the failure lies in not looking more closely at the “push” aspect endemic to voter communications. Where research has been conducted, the onus has been placed on the voter as an active subject — on how voters consciously and deliberately seek out information. While this research is clearly important, the acquisition of information is a two-way process. The basis on which individual curiosity is developed and “pull” mechanisms are deployed first requires preliminary information, or information that’s often not consciously sought out. To ensure voters are asking the right questions, this basis of inquiry must be strong and accurate. Yet, to date, the channels through which voters are informed are lacking.
In political society, the failure emerges from a lack of measures being taken to ensure voters have access to factual, nonpartisan information — a phenomenon that is routinely undermined by the systematic defunding of state budgets, which includes slashing money for the Office of the Secretary of State. In highlighting the limitations of pull mechanisms in this appendix, we hope to emphasize the necessity of developing meaningful county-, state-, and federal-level informational “pushes” around elections and voting.