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The onset of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has led to a shift to mail voting. States saw huge increases in mail voting during their primary elections, and this shift is likely to carry over to the November 3, 2020 General Election.

Although millions of Americans will be casting absentee ballots for the first time in 2020, U.S. citizens living overseas, active duty military (ADM) members stationed away from their home jurisdiction, and their eligible family members have been voting by mail for decades. These voters have their right to vote by mail protected under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). So, where do UOCAVA voters turn to find detailed information on the absentee voting process? Their state’s UOCAVA web page.

Providing voters with information that is accurate and easy to use is a critical yet somewhat overlooked aspect of today’s voting experience. Fors Marsh Group (FMG), in partnership with the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), conducted a systematic assessment of the UOCAVA-specific web pages of all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. territories. The research approaches used for this project revealed website recommendations that can improve voting experiences.

Using Content Coding to Assess Websites

According to the 2018 Post-Election Voting Survey of Active Duty Military Members, 61% of ADM surveyed were aware that state and local election websites could be used as a resource and 32% used these websites to get important information about absentee voting.

FMG assessed three aspects of UOCAVA voting information online:

  • Findability: How quickly could an average voter locate a state’s UOCAVA web page?
  • Completeness: Did the web page contain all the necessary procedural information for a voter to understand their state’s UOCAVA voting process?
  • User Friendliness: Was the state’s web page organized so that it was easy to read and understand?

FMG used a content-coding approach to systematically evaluate each state’s UOCAVA web page. For reliability and accuracy, each web page was coded separately by two trained content coders, and an elections subject matter expert resolved any differences between the coders. The coders examined each web page and assigned it ratings that allowed our research team to conduct quantitative analysis of the data. For instance, the coders measured the number of clicks it took to find the web page; the percentage of procedural information that could be found on the web page; the difficulty of finding the web page and each piece of procedural information and the organization of the web page; and rated their agreement with statements like “I was able to learn everything I need to know to be able to register as a UOCAVA voter, request a UOCAVA ballot, and successfully cast that ballot.”

In addition, the content coding incorporated a UMUX-Lite questionnaire at several points to assess the coders’ perceptions of the ease of using the UOCAVA web pages. In addition, our research team used software to conduct a Flesch readability test, which measures how difficult a passage of English-language text is to understand. This helped determine whether the UOCAVA web pages were written in a way that is accessible to the average voter.

Readability Recommendations that Educate Voters

Based on the research, FMG found that most state UOCAVA web pages could be found in under a minute of searching and had nine of the 11 key pieces of procedural information. However, one-fifth of the procedural information was confusing, lacked clarity or context, or was located several clicks away from the state’s primary UOCAVA web page. In addition, only one state web page met the widely accepted benchmark for being readable by the average voter; all other state UOCAVA web pages were far too complex in their language.

Based on these findings, FMG provided FVAP with the following recommendations for states to better assist UOCAVA voters with successfully completing the absentee voting process:

  • Implement a search engine optimization (SEO) strategy. In addition, add meta tags with priority key words, periodically measure website rankings, and regularly publish new content. This type of SEO strategy puts relevant content in the right places and helps search engines understand and relay to users what the website offers.
  • Make it easy to find UOCAVA information on election home pages and through menus. This ensures that website visitors are able to easily find the UOCAVA page from the home page navigation and menu choices, and it reduces the chances that visitors will abandon the web page without finding what they need.
  • Put all UOCAVA information on one page. By doing this, voters will avoid having to hunt through multiple pages for the information that they need to complete the absentee voting process and will be less likely to miss key steps in the UOCAVA voting process.
  • Organize information by how the average reader reads web content. About 80% of people scan web pages rather than read every word, and most of that scanning happens in an F-shaped pattern (i.e., first reading left to right near the top of the page, then dropping down and reading horizontally again, but not going as far across the page, and then scanning the remainder of the left side vertically). By organizing content according to how people read, states can increase the probability that voters will find the information they need.
  • Use lists or tables to organize information. Large blocks of text can be difficult for the average person to read and fully understand, especially if the text contains complicated or technical information. Breaking the information into lists and tables can increase comprehension.
  • Avoid jargon and remove unnecessary content. Content that uses plain language principles and focuses on key information makes for a productive and seamless experience for users. Use short words and sentences, write primarily in the active voice, and use the inverted pyramid style (place the most important information at the top of the page and less important information at the bottom of the page).

These simple changes will better assist UOCAVA voters as they seek to exercise their voting rights. To learn more about this project and how states can improve their web pages for UOCAVA voters, FMG’s full report can be found here. Contact us to learn more about how our team of research experts can help you find similar insights and improve the user experience of your website.

About the author

Emily Lauter and Lindsay Nielson

Emily Lauter is a RIVA trained moderator and research analyst at Fors Marsh Group. Ms. Lauter provides expertise on a variety of qualitative and quantitative research projects, working to moderate and analyze in-depth interviews and focus groups, and designing and implementing program evaluations. Emily works closely with Federal clients to enhance elections experience for election officials and eligible voters. Ms. Lauter holds a Masters in Public Administration from Georgia State University.

Lindsay Nielson is a researcher at Fors Marsh Group, where she works with federal clients to conduct research and data collection projects to better understand the state of American elections and voting. She is an expert on voting behavior and election administration, and her research on topics, such as voter identification, voter privacy, polling place lines, and congressional elections, has been published in multiple academic journals. Dr. Nielson holds a PhD in political science from the University of California, San Diego, and has taught courses on American politics at Bucknell University and the University of San Diego.

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