Understanding Who Makes Democracy Work: A Call for an Ethnography of our Poll Workers

In the April primary, it took me four long hours, three ill-informed election workers, two crowded subway rides, and one Board of Elections judge to vote.

It started at my local polling place, where I walked in and discovered that I was not on the voting list. Slightly peeved, but prepared, I asked two different poll workers for a provisional ballot. The first hesitated and said, “We don’t have those;” the second directed me to the Board of Elections (my first subway ride). There, I was met with more confused looks and pointing fingers. After waiting with relentless patience, I ended up sitting before a busy Board of Elections judge, who told me I needed an affidavit ballot—a type of provisional ballot—available back at my local polling place (my second subway ride).

Now, I am pretty into democracy. I am that friend who wears campaign buttons during primary season and who preaches the importance of voting in local elections. I also have the motivation, determination, and flexibility to do what it takes to ensure I can cast my vote. So as I moved through my day of voting hurdles, from one set of contrasting instructions to another, I kept wondering—how many voters would have given up after the first confused poll worker?

As citizens, casting a ballot is one of our foundational rights. We need to start reversing the status quo of laughably low voter turnout—not just in crucial presidential elections, but all of the primaries, midterms, and local elections in between. With so much at stake, each vote is indispensable. We cannot continue to discourage those who show up to be counted with our poorly managed polling places. It is time for us to rethink the voting experience. That starts by understanding why polling-place hiccups like mine are so common.

Our inability to run polling stations is not a new problem.

Following most elections a familiar batch of articles, highlighting long wait times and mismanaged polling places, appear on our newsfeeds. It seems like everyone has experienced a slow-moving or rude poll worker who makes voting more complicated than it has to be. But ineffectively run polling places not only cause headaches; they have huge effects on our democracy.

Research shows that voter confidence is significantly influenced by interactions with poll workers. If you have a terrible experience, you are less likely to vote again. And worse—poll workers have discretion to interpret complicated voting laws at polling places, and ill-informed decisions have consequential effects on our election systems. For example, changes to the provisional voting law in Colorado led poll workers to mistakenly withhold provisional ballots from qualified voters. (Sound familiar?)

But we cannot blame poll workers for these problems, because the system pushes these volunteers to fail. A comprehensive 2014 report from the National Election Administration outlined the challenges that face polling places. For starters, it’s hard to recruit enough. Those that volunteer are expected to work for 16-hour shifts, with little training, and deal with increasingly complex technology—most poll workers only sign up once.

We need better policy, right?

Sincere policy changes at both the national and local level have tried to tackle the woes of our polling places. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), a response to the 2000 Florida fiasco, continues to help local authorities upgrade many aspects of their election procedures, including voting machines, registration processes, and poll worker training.

But many of these well-intentioned steps have one big flaw: they are created without consulting actual poll workers. For example, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s 16-point plan for voting reform focuses on enhancing existing incentive structures, with little proof that they are currently working. The plan put forth less-than-inspiring ideas, like raising the poll worker stipend from $200 per day to $240.

Policy recommendations have to be grounded in an understanding of the experiences of government employees on “the front lines” of polling places. If you ask them, I highly doubt that solutions like increasing poll worker stipends by $40 would be on the top of anyone’s list. This type of top-down policy has been proven ineffective time and time again because it is not designed with potential users in mind.

Design to the rescue?

When we see policy falling short, designers often step in with our box of “user-centered” tools. But our bias for cutting-edge or tech-based solutions can lead us astray, too. For example, IDEO recently collaborated with Los Angeles County to “define a voting process that feels familiar to voters” and launched a new ballot machine. It’s an inventive step forward, but IDEO’s definition of the “voting process” starts and ends with voters in a voting booth, not when they walk through that public library or local elementary school, ready to cast their ballot. IDEO has focused only on the technology solution, isolating the controllable digital experiences, and ignoring the people (poll workers) and processes (policy and regulations) those products live within.

So as designers, we too miss the mark. We tend to think of design for social innovation in terms of products and services, and promise the social sector a magic bullet that will neatly solve their problems. But, these shiny objects don’t really address the election system’s messier context to include people, processes, protocols, and policies.

The good news? Design for social innovation is not a static product or “thing.” It’s a process—one that anyone can learn. It’s a way of solving problems through first understanding the needs, contexts, motivations, and incentives not just of “end-users” (in this case, voters), but all users in a system (policymakers, election administrators, and poll workers) before proposing a solution.

To start changing the status quo frustrations for voters at the polls, we have to start by understanding the experiences (including the frustrations) of the poll workers who serve them.  

It’s time for a design approach to policymaking

The gap between top-down policy and tech-centric design shows up in many other systems with chronic problems, too. Just as voting interventions often skip over poll workers, education interventions often miss teachers’ voices, and government reform proposals skip over government employees. We need to design human-centered policy—with designers and policymakers not only working together, but grounding their collaborations in the experiences of these front-line workers.

And there are examples of policy solutions that do. In 2014, the Center for Civic Design collaborated with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to understand the challenges of how electronic poll books are currently being used in the polling place to inform usability improvements. And in 2013, Reboot teamed up with the voting advocacy organization Turbovote to conduct an institutional ethnography of elections administrations throughout the United States which led to the development of a ballot tracking tool for the 2016 election cycle.  

These examples illustrate how design doesn’t just inform an end product, but can build understanding into a policymaking process. Each uses institutional ethnography to ground solutions in empirical evidence based on users’ experiences, and sets government agencies up for success—rather than condemning them for not getting it right the first time.

This kind of design can help more people to feel confident casting a ballot. It’s also good for policymakers and elections boards who want to avoid those headlines every year about polling place dysfunction. If poll workers have the support and structures they need to make the voting experience seamless, it would be just one less excuse not to vote.

Futher reading.