Flop the Vote

Growing up, I cared very little for politics. My label as a Republican stems from my mom being as such, as well as knowing that Ronald Regan tried to make something called “Star Wars” a reality..in this galaxy…right now. To a 7 year old, this burns a mental loyalty into your soul. Living in Philly or NYC, the sheer density, and liberal values being shoved down your throat 24/7 basically leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Philly was actually so liberal, it was pointless to even vote. I would often (and I don’t recommend this) simply throw out a completely absurd retort to my rather hard core politico friends, even if I didn’t believe it, just to turn a night of mundane revelry into a charged one. They would chock it up to me being a naive Republican, I would chock it up to the importance of understanding both sides of problem.

It wasn’t really until grad school (of course), and applying the design process to different organizations, ideas, etc, that I really began to take a shining to politics. Because as it seems, in order to solve a problem, the biggest issue is not the funding or the solving…or the reality, it’s the politics involved. To make a difference in something you need to navigate many, many.. ideals, agendas, and preconceived notions for progress. We repeat our beliefs out loud, or in our own head so much so, that they become ingrained in our vocabulary. You’ll soon catch yourself unknowingly spewing your beliefs. No matter how morally, factually or culturally true they are. Etched into our atoms, I like to say. So campaigning nowadays takes on an interesting life.

As experience/interaction designers, we have to learn to throw out our personal beliefs in order to be able to observe without bias. Using this past Cincinnati Mayoral election as fodder for play, I am going to break down the entirety of the election process, make some educated assumptions, and ask some questions to see where things truly went wrong.

Let us start with the task itself. In the most basic of steps to “have your voice heard” you must do the following:

1. Be 18 years old
2. Get Registered
3. Find a Polling Location
4. Go to Polling Location
5. Have ID at the ready
6. Enter/walk up to/decipher your districts fun little voting machine
7. Have made a decision on whom to vote for
8. Submit votes
9. Go home and feel slightly more empowered than (typically) 70% of the populace

Now, it’s really the nuances here that determine the success rate of any of these given steps. Nuances and level of civic pride and/or involvement. Let’s start with step 1. Being 18 years old. I do recall my very first eligible election. My mom took me. I was overwhelmed. I was asked to fill out forms (with pens!) and it was in a gymnasium that was all squeaky and echoey. I remember the smell of moldy cloth as I walked up to the curtained booth, for the first time, without a parent at my side. Mom was in the booth next door. Within a minute or so the experienced pro next to me made the booths massive mechanical “clunk” sound signifying that her choices were made. I, stared blankly at a sheet realizing I successfully navigated all the way to #7 above, but had no idea what I aligned with. I remember my mom calling out asking if i was ok, and then me whispering back my dilemma, to which point she burst out in laughter, and I just began flipping switches.

Prepared or not, few still show up on game day mainly due to parental example. This trend has been observed heavily since the early 1950s. Keep in mind 18 year olds voting is a fairly new trend, only about 30 years old. For how loud the hipsterific millenials seem to scream mercy when the soap box falls near them, they rarely voice their opinion on the matter. Truth is, with only 49% of 18 year-olds actually registered to vote, very little put forth the effort to understand the candidates or their opinion (and one could say vice versa).

Step 2, the great clunker. Getting registered. Depending on the type of election, location, and about a million other factors, many don’t realize that they have to be registered, in advance (like 30 days ahead), to vote. Local governments use, interesting, tactics to remind people of this. Most notably people on the street with clipboards asking you if you are a registered voter. You know, that tactic that studies have shown immediately sends people into defensive mode, thereby closing their ear drums and sending their feet scurrying about like a countermeasure avoiding a missile. Now the other various ways involve, doing it online, at the primary, going to your local clerk/city hall/courthouse/post office, basically anything with an eagle on it, or attending a social event in support. Besides waiting for someone to knock on your door, these are pro-active methods. All viable if not annoying solutions to feed that amazing statistic that roughly only 70% of eligible people are registered, thereby allowed to vote.

Thus bringing us to election day. As if the steps prior aren’t annoying enough. Keep in mind, while the internet has sped up these steps considerably, a majority of the non-voters, i.e the other 70% or so, don’t use the internet as prevalently as you, currently reading this blog. So the ease in which you might consider these steps, is actually more of a physical exertion on many others. Now, to the polling locations. Imagine if you will, a city very much dependent on the car in order to get around. A city where people travel via 2 buses routes just to get some healthy food options. A city sprawled and disjointed by a severe lack of public transportation. Now, make them find (call, watch the news, internet, word of mouth) the district polling location, and then walk there in the rain. Go ahead, I’ll wait. In a society where even an automated phone system has been in play for nearly 26 years, never mind the internet, I find this absurd.

Ok, now once you get there, we kind of hold our breath. Let’s not even get into the irate crowds, bullying or random acts of incidence that can happen at a polling location. We could, but that honestly is a whole other article. No, let’s get into what many might think is a simple step 5. Having valid ID. A recent testimony by a PA statistician noted that of the 8 million voters in Pennsylvania, about half a million (a disproportionate number of them minorities) didn’t have a valid ID to vote. That’s another 6% off the top. So, to recap, you are 18, you have physically gone somewhere to register to vote, you have made the calls, internet queries or news watching to find your local polling location 30 days later, and in the interim have made a point of getting a valid ID which requires dealing with the ever delightful state of ______’s DMV. Still want to vote? Ok…

Let’s take a gander at your districts little fun box. Ever had that moment when you are driving your new car, it gets dark out, and you realize you have no fucking clue where the headlight switch is? Or how about that moment, when your 16 year old daughter out on her first date, keeps calling your new fangled phone that you can’t figure out how to answer? Or how about when your wife asks you to set the DVR to record something she will inevitably die if she doesn’t see it even though you hadn’t a clue that you even owned a DVR? Yes, I am talking about new-ness here, and the jarring sensation of it all. But that is what happens. When it comes to interaction design, you are bending peoples cognitive abilities. Influencing them, heavily, to understand the experience they are about to partake in, without (hopefully) instruction. Overstimulating this “cognitive load”, is very simple. See Windows 7 backlash. And the result is temporary confusion. Now add in the fact that there is no single device that is used across all wards to vote, tally, or maintain results. In this digital age, we still use very analog methods when it comes to voting. Something that is extremely counter intuitive to IxD, where the more you depend on a human for input, the greater the risk of failure. Regardless, it is well documented how badly designed these systems actually are, downright confusing even to a voter. Keep in mind this is a task not repeated often, and the system you may have used 2, 4 years ago, is likely changed even further. Many claim this is by design to prevent even the remotest form of tampering. I claim its just downright stupid, and a universal system/booth needs to be adapted and implemented showing realtime results. More on that later.

But all of this can be thwarted by the very next item on the list. Who do you pick? When it comes to voting day, the debating stops, and the word is typical. “Just get out and vote.” The assumption is that by now, you have heard all you need to hear and you are armed with the information necessary to make a clear decision. But truth is, a majority don’t. In the last mayoral election here in Cincinnati, the candidates voted 98% of the time exactly the same, with a disparity on 2 issues. Both are democrats. Neither are backed by their own party. Yes, this city had Jerry Springer for mayor once. Now I get it. Anyone that has heard me speak or attended my lectures knows my stance on modern media. You could probably get more factual information in a Stephen King novel. The perverting of social medias, and complete invasion of screens has melted whatever parts of gray matter in our brains that lend themselves to logical thought. Modern campaigns are so muddied and confusing that only key phrases and words ring true. We are being trained to skim over facts, and just take whole stories at headline value. FOR STREETCAR. AGAINST STREETCAR. No one asks why? Or to what end? People only see dollar signs and somehow they think it effects their life. When a library, school, fire department, etc was built down the street from you, did you notice more money being yanked out of your bank account? No. You didn’t. But you react to these issues because they are immediately followed up with things like, “Local schools cutting out football due to lack of budget” and immediately go to blame the biggest bill on the cit’s itinerary. There are apps and websites to help us make our decisions, like Elect Next, where after a few simple steps it can align you with candidates that share your values. Such items are great but you need to think of this ahead of time, and no, these tools will not “fill in details” like even an outsourced parking authority will generate $35 million in revenue annually for the city (See Philadelphia Parking Authority). All it will do is assign broad generalizations, unfortunately for the rest of use, we are dependent on you doing due diligence. Yet again, you need to be proactive here. Pretend you are shopping for a new fridge, do your homework cause you are going to be stuck with it for a bit (see again, this requires more effort than the 70% will allow).

But there always the chance that you forgot to submit your vote. While there are no hard numbers on this, it is still widely believed that somewhere between 0.1 and .3% of all votes fail to record due to user, machine or counter error. So yeah. There’s that.

Okay, there are many many things actually hindering down the voting process. But why, in Cincinnati’s case did it fail so miserably? When I polled a large swath of people the following day, the most common response was, “I didn’t know who to vote for so I chose not to.” Yup. The old S.A.T. trick, if you don’t know the answer, skip the question. See, this is where you need to shut off that defensive mode in your brain, the part that immediately said, “oh that’s bullshit, it’s a cop out.” Because I am here to tell you, that it’s not. If you are reading this (especially this far in), odds are you are heavily involved in your community, politically and otherwise. You want answers as to why this and that happened. Well, theres a couple ways to look at it. First and foremost do rule number one, and throw out your bias.

Now, you could do the numbers game, where at each step above you significantly reduce the amount of votes actual versus votes assumed. That is of course had the candidates done their jobs and gotten people to the polls. Historically, no candidate has put forth any real means of circumventing the above process. Technically, they can’t. That’s tampering. But no government seems eager to simplify this process to the point of Tweeting. I mean seriously. We can’t go door to door? We can’t have a mobile voting *chuckle* streetcar? In vast contrast to the presidential election (which has more money thrown about) I saw very little effort by any candidate to “stimulate the mob.” No, those useless yard signs don’t count. And I apologize, they aren’t useless, we all now know whose houses to egg on a consistent basis. We are a populace of the disillusioned, it shouldn’t take much to at the very least, antagonize …coax.. us into voting. The seemingly complicated process of voting may explain the rise in absentee ballots over the past few elections. By a lot actually. While still slightly analog, most of the process is completed online, requiring no socially awkward moments (feeding our modern introvertness), physically going to locations (other than a mailbox), and more time to research thoroughly.

More should be made of the vast amount of misinformation strewn about and passed, seemingly, amongst the twitterverse and other social realms. Cranley did nothing amazing to win this. He simply threw out chum to the sharks. Cranley’s numbers actually fell in line with most incumbents over the years. If anything I would place the blame on Qualls who, let’s be honest, let her supporters do a lion share of the talking for her. Ok, let me rephrase, her supporters always spoke louder than her, which placed her in the psychological position of “on the defensive.” The chatter, however, never really left the confines of downtown, where she was about as close to unanimous as you can get, but unfortunately isn’t enough to circumvent the decision making of the surrounding neighborhoods. Communities who, let’s face it, have been feeling extremely neglected since the resurgence of OTR. But it’s that face time, that door to door, that, lack of marketing “effort” that sank Qualls. I mean there are literally people out there that think they are personally paying for a streetcar that they will never use, and that their fireman neighbor is unemployed because of it. We played this game in kindergarten people, it’s called telephone. You actually changed the phrasing on purpose the further out you went. Remember? Qualls didn’t need voter turn out, she needed a better spinster. She should get whoever P.G. Sittentight is using, cause as far as I can tell he’s crushing it. A simple commercial showing your pearly-while smile, Benz driving couple, parking at the Banks, enjoying a ballgame and a laugh before hoping onto the streetcar to grab an overpriced hot dog at Senate then on a romantic walk through Washington Park enroute to a symphony performance is all that you’d need. Seriously, Rox, you have supporters that are filmmakers and would gladly do this for free.

However if it’s voter turn out that you seek, a large part of me says that you need to feed the lethargism of modern society. They want the 140 character voting process. The status update. The check in. The 6 second movie of the next 4 years of their life. We were trending that way even without smartphones. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality. With the reduced number of voters consisting of higher educated, proactive members of a community, my question is, are you prepared for the results of a system that can produce 90+%?

Let’s take a vote.

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