Democratic Usability: Where to Find Information on Local Elections

Sunset reflected over Chinatown I’m not going to turn this into a full-time political blog, but I just spent the evening researching local issues and candidates and a thought occurred to me – does anyone test the usability and the user experience of the democratic process?

There’s a number of different ways to approach this question.  The usability of voting systems is a big part of it, and in the case of electronic voting machines, this would be identical to traditional usability testing.  I’m going to put that question aside for now since I haven’t studied it very closely and talk about the information seeking portion of the electoral user experience.

Also, I apologize in advance for making this post very U.S.-centric.  Please comment below on how these issues apply in your country.

Political information seeking

We are completely inundated with information and misinformation about the major candidates for national office, from a wide variety of communication media.  Everything from dinner-table conversations and door-to-door canvassing to cable news, candidate web sites, and political blogs can influence how we vote.

Often the quality of the information being transmitted leaves much to be desired.  Political commercials tend to fall rather low on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Television news coverage often seems to chase the scandal of the moment when it’s not covering the poll numbers like a horse race.  By the way, FiveThirtyEight is a great site that covers the campaigns and analyzes the polls with some actual statistical vigor.

With apologies to McLuhan, the medium might not be the message but the medium probably does matter. With so much information available online, and such a diversity of opinion among blogs and periodicals, it is possible to find lots of high-quality information.

But what about local issues?  Where do you turn to figure out who to vote for city council or dog catcher?

Local newspapers and their websites

Unfortunately the quality, quantity and availability of information from local newspapers varies wildly by location.   Voters in major metropolitan areas tend to be luckiest, though even large newspapers still don’t have searchable archives available online.  Yes, that’s right, no need to check the date on this blog post — it’s is the year 2008 and some newspapers still jealously guard old clippings.

National organizations

The key is to find organizations that make a point of pursuing objectivity and presenting factual data., sponsored by the league of women voters, is probably the best example.  They attempt to send questionnaires to all of the candidates and present he information factually.  They also include links to candidate’s web pages when possible.  I highly recommend checking out the “Find my Ballot” search to bring up listings of candidates and events.

Also, the National Institute on Money on State Politics organizes campaign contribution data for state races.

Candidate web pages

The information found on a candidate’s own website will no doubt be biased in their favor, but these sites can include detailed policy statements and background information.  That is, assuming the candidate has a web site.  It’s hard to convince me (and a growing number of voters like me) if you can’t even bother to put up something.

So what did I miss?  Where do you turn for local coverage?