Online Voter Behavior and Needs: preliminary research

How can web developers make it easier for voters to keep government honest and make informed decisions in the voting booth? To begin to answer this question, I've done a preliminary survey of research on voter information behavior, especially as it relates to online usage.

I've distilled the relevant bits from 3 articles that give overviews of current research, as well as the practical design recommendations from 1 fabulous NSF-funded research report. I also list over 70 useful government guidelines compiled for state voter web sites.

Article 1

by Copeland & Garn

6 Theories mentioned:

  • partisanship
  • friends and neighbors
  • retrospective voting
  • dissatisfaction voting
  • issue voting
  • capture

Copeland & Garn (2007) note that the local arena has not been explored much by voting behavior theorists and that the most frequent local election is for school board members.  They use this election type to explore the veracity of voting behavior theories when tested at the often-ignored local level. In addition to some interesting insights into information sources for local elections, they review a number of theories of voting behavior in the process. They find that the 'friends and neighbors' voting was the most compelling for their focus group participants and that character judgments were particularly valued.

First, they explore theories of partisanship. Because these races are largely non-partisan, there is frequently little information and even less interest. In low information elections, voters often rely for guidance on shortcut cues such as: incumbency, name recognition, and party.

Second, Copeland & Garn cover V. O. Key's friends and neighbors theory, in which citizens "vote for people they know, people who live or work around them, or  candidates known to friends or associates." They then cover retrospective voting - in which voters judge the incumbents based on past performance - and the dissatisfaction theory - in which voters turn out in higher numbers to cast votes against the status quo when they are unhappy.

The next theory, issue voting, explores whether voters use candidates' positions and character when making voting decisions. This is broader than the capture theory, in which highly motivated individuals or groups are more likely to vote - or are perceived to be so by the candidates - because they have a direct, special interest in the outcome.

Article 2

by Druckman

Main theories:

  • information shortcuts
  • overall evaluation (not individual facts) are remembered

Recommendations for future research:

  • focus on normative desired outcomes
  • focus on details of specific sources

In Druckman's (2005) article he provides an overview of recent conflicting research on variance in political knowledge, argues that these differences in political literacy are important, and then seeks to identify what causes them.

The first of two research projects that questions the value of knowing political facts argues that citizens can compensate for a lack of political knowledge by using shortcuts (Popkin's idea) to make the same decisions they would have made if they had had information. Examples of these information shortcuts are:

  • interest group endorsements,
  • expert advice,
  • ideology,
  • party cues, and
  • campaign expenditures.

The second research project argues that citizens don't survey the facts in their minds and come to a decision. Instead, they remember an overall evaluation of a candidate in their minds and update that overall view when new facts arise without remembering the specific facts that shaped that evaluation. Thus, the facts a person can recall don't necessarily equate to the quality of their political judgment and more information is not necessarily better.

Druckman argues that researchers should define normative criteria for good/competent political decisions and then document how information affects these criteria. He emphasizes that future research should focus on why a particular type of information is important, on the desired outcomes to which it is a precursor, and on the specific sources and content of those sources. For example, it is important not just to measure media type, but to measure the content and presentation features of a specific media that facilitate learning.

Article 3

by Robertson, Wania, & Park

Main points:

  • online voter behavior differs from traditional source use
  • decision-making is central task
  • 4 strategies for decision-making in light of voter cognitive limitations
  • observed voter preferences and behaviors

Robertson, Wania, & Park (2007) report on an observational think-aloud study of people using the internet in a mock-voting situation and use the results to offer ideas for the design of a voter portal.

The authors contrast previous models with online political information seeking, noting that online voters:

  • regularly encounter persuasive content which they must interpret alongside the factual;
  • are focused on their need to make a decision;
  • must actively seek, filter, and remember on their own, rather than use preselected information given them by researchers; and
  • are using a largely unstudied political information medium - the internet.

Robertson et. al. give a very helpful overview of Lau and Redlawsk's framework which highlights voters' cognitive limitations.

Given voters' conflicting desires to make a decision that is both good and easy, Lau and Redlawsk identify four decision-making strategies for dealing with this conflict.

  1. In the classical rational choice strategy, people find and process all available information in order to compare and assign values to all attributes and make all relevant trade-offs.  The other three strategies rely on an incomplete search in order to avoid value conflicts and trade-offs.
  2. Confirmatory decision making strategists, for instance, try to evaluate new learning and make it consistent with what they already know.
  3. Fast and frugal decision making, on the other hand, is not particularly concerned with consequences, but considers the many alternatives using simple heuristics.
  4. Finally, intuitive decision-making involves trading off effort with time. Interestingly, Lau and Redlawsk found that these last two strategies were often more effective than the rational choice strategy.

A number of voter behaviors and preferences were noted in this study, including that the participants:

  • didn't use search, preferring to browse thoroughly and opportunistically, but were uninterested in comprehensive knowledge;
  • were focused on making the voting decision throughout the search process;
  • preferred comparative, third-party charts of candidate information;
  • focused on three areas of candidate evaluation - prior experience, personal and occupational information, and issues/positions;
  • used party as a cue;
  • spent a lot of time on candidate web sites, but found them unhelpful;
  • desired more information about the office itself; and
  • exhibited various levels of trust in the information and sources they encountered.

Article 4

by U.S. Election Assistance Commission

Main points:

  • 6 types of voters
  • 5 common voter concerns
  • over 70 guidelines for state voter information websites

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (2008) conducted a thorough study of 71 active voter information web sites in which they catalogued common functions, and presented them to a panel of experts for discussion and review.

The report identifies six types of voters, each with their own specific concerns:

  1. first-time voters;
  2. infrequent voters;
  3. consistent voters;
  4. voters with special circumstances;
  5. absentee voters; and
  6. uniformed/overseas voters.

The same report also lists the following common voter concerns:

  1. When, where and how do I register to vote?
  2. Who will be on my ballot?
  3. How do I decide who to vote for?
  4. When, where, and how will I be voting?
  5. Who won the election?

As the answers to all of the questions except the third are relatively short and factual, I've written an in-depth post on the third concern: How to research political candidates. I've also reiterated the Election Commission's Voter Checklist of things to do before election day.

The goal of this study was to provide guidelines that will assist election administrators in developing voter information web sites that best serve voters and encourage informed participation. Appendix C gives an abbreviated outline of the recommended guidelines for voter information websites.

Preliminary Planning - Recommendations

  • 3.1: Answer the question "Am I registered to vote?" (P.9)
  • 3.2: Review legal considerations. (P.9)
  • 3.3: Update voter records as often as possible. (P.9)
  • 3.4: Adopt a neutral voice. (P.9)
  • 3.5: Use effective design principles. (P.10)
  • 3.6: Contract out work as needed. (P.10)
  • 3.7: Review contractors' prior work. (P.10
  • 3.8: Consider commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) and open source solutions. (P.10)
  • 3.9: Establish clear goals before development. (P.10)
  • 3.10: Inventory data sources. (P.10)
  • 3.11: Plan for high capacity peaks. (P.10)
  • 3.12: Consider intellectual property and copyright issues. (P.11)
  • 3.13: Document project development and system functionality. (P.11)
  • 3.14: Budget for development, hosting, capacity, and promotion. (P.11)
  • 3.15: Track usage patterns. (P.11)

Features - Recommendations

  • 4.1: Provide voters with the answer to the question "Where do I vote?" (P.12)
  • 4.2: Add map links to polling locations. (P.12)
  • 4.3: Do not provide voters with driving directions. (P.12)
  • 4.4: When including mapping programs, use the simplest versions available. (P.12)
  • 4.5: Provide voters with a sample ballot. (P.13)
  • 4.6: Display sample ballots exactly as they will appear on Election Day. (P.13)
  • 4.7: Link sample ballots to helpful information. (P.13)
  • 4.8: Do not link to incumbent government websites on a voter guide. (P.13)
  • 4.9: Give voters the ability to track absentee ballots online. (P.13)
  • 4.10: Allow users to check the status of provisional ballots online. (P.13)
  • 4.11: Provide instructions for how to use voting equipment. (P.14)
  • 4.12: Post Election Day times and polling location hours prominently. (P.14)
  • 4.13: Provide other readily-available information neatly and in a logical manner. (P.14)

Marketing and Promotion - Recommendations

  • 5.1: Consider different user audiences in promoting a voter information website. (P.15)
  • 5.2: Repetition equals reinforcement. (P.15)
  • 5.3: Use traditional media to promote voter information websites. (P.15)
  • 5.4: Include your voter information website address on all voter outreach and election materials. (P.15)
  • 5.5: Encourage election staff to direct voters to the voter information website. (P.16)
  • 5.6: Adjust your capacity to account for your promotion. (P.16)
  • 5.7: Identify and consider factors that may increase traffic. (P.16)
  • 5.8: Make voter information website addresses simple and easy to remember.  (P.16)
  • 5.9: Build promotion around a single website address. (P.16)
  • 5.10: Allow official voter information websites to be used as a tool for local voter outreach programs. (P.17)

Security and Privacy - Recommendations

  • 6.1: Do not expose the official registry file to the Internet. (official voter registry file security) (P.18)
  • 6.2: Do not expose data to the Internet that is not used by your voter information website. (unused registry data security) (P.19)
  • 6.3:  Avoid asking for too much information. (online transaction security)(P.19)
  • 6.4: Review and comply with your jurisdiction's security policies on encrypting data. (online transaction security) (P.19)
  • 6.5: Make sure you know who is working with your voter information. (web development security and individual voter privacy) (P.20)
  • 6.6: Use increased security if you set out to vet the voter registry for accuracy, and avoid doing so at the expense of voter security. (online transaction security and individual voter privacy) (P.20)
  • 6.7: Display as little information as possible about the voter - just enough to answer the voter's question.  (online transaction security and individual voter privacy) (P.20)
  • 6.8: Avoid disclosing a voter's birth date or current address. (individual voter privacy and security) (P.21)
  • 6.9: Make sure your website is not a stalking tool. (P.21)
  • (individual voter privacy and security)
  • 6.10: Review you website to make sure it does not facilitate identity theft. (individual voter privacy and security)(P.21)
  • 6.11: Make sure your website does not facilitate election fraud. (election security)(P.22)
  • 6.12: Use implied information when possible. (individual voter privacy and transaction security)(P.22)
  • 6.13: Avoid displaying information about more than one voter. (individual voter privacy and transaction security)(P.22)
  • 6.14: Avoid using lists (individual voter privacy and transaction security) (P.23)
  • 6.15: Avoid information over-exposure. (individual voter privacy) (P.23)
  • 6.16:  Avoid asking for obscure information. (online transaction security) (P.23)

Designing a Positive User Experience - Recommendations

  • 7.1: Move users quickly from general to specific information. (P.25)
  • 7.2: Employ industry standard graphic design principles and highlight the most popular features. (P.25)
  • 7.3: Review design to ensure simplicity. (P.26)
  • 7.4: Use broad and simple language; link to legal detail as necessary. (P.26)
  • 7.5: Encourage voters with complex questions to contact election administrators. (P.26)
  • 7.6: Use clear and consistent menus and icons. (P.26)
  • 7.7: Use simple and recognizable visual language. (P.26)
  • 7.8: Avoid excessive graphic design. (P.26)
  • 7.9: Use "Frequently Asked Questions." (P.27)
  • 7.10: Avoid asking voters for information that is not readily-available. (P.27)

Accessibility - Recommendations

  • 8.1: Establish Section 508 as a minimum requirement for usability. (P.28)
  • 8.2: Follow foreign language requirements for printed materials on the website. (P.28)
  • 8.3: Ensure that content is written at a basic or intermediate literacy level. (P.28)
  • 8.4: Ensure that website design encompasses users of below-average Internet literacy. (P.29)
  • 8.5: Ensure compliance with new technologies when designing a voter information website. (P.29)
  • 8.6: Use simple technologies. (P.29)
  • 8.7: Display pages in printer-friendly formats. (P.29)


Copeland, G. W., & Garn, G. (2007). Voting When Few Care and Most Don't Know: Voter Decision-Making in School Board Elections. Conference Papers -- American Political Science Association, 1-35. Retrieved November 23, 2008, from

Druckman, J. (2005). Does Political Information Matter? Political Communication, 22(4), 515-519. Retrieved November 23, 2008, from EBSCO HOST - Academic Search Complete.

Robertson, S. P., Wania, C. E., & Park, S. Joon. (2007). An Observational Study of Voters on the Internet. In Proceedings of the 40th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences - 2007. Hawaii. Retrieved October 11, 2008, from

U.S. Election Assistance Commission. (2008, April 11). Voter Information Websites Study. Retrieved September 3, 2008, from