When Design Thinking and Election Reform Come Together

An interview with Tiana Epps-Johnson from the Center for Technology and Civic Life on using community-driven tools to improve election processes.

During election season, there are a lot of partisan politics but little discussion about how elections actually operate. In fact, elections in the United States are a highly decentralized process, with just under 8,000 election authorities and around 22,000 election administrators. The technology used in these offices often varies, even within counties and there are varying degrees of digital literacy and training for administrators. Additional complications include different early-voting laws, absentee ballots for those overseas and military, and a lot of data, which can differ across localities. Some election officials are appointed, others are elected. From registration and notifications to websites, electronic ballots, and data management there are multiple areas for technology to improve the elections process.

In short, the election process is diffuse and lacks uniform standards. Yet every detail of elections, from social media outreach and ballot layout to data input and ballot counting, are critical components for the health of our democracy.

The Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL) is working to change this by building out a suite of tools to empower election officials. Critically, instead of simply building a top-down set of tools, CTCL has led an entirely community-driven process working with the Center for Civic Design to ensure that individual election officials have the resources they each need. I had a chance to catch up with founder and executive director Tiana Epps-Johnson shortly after CTCL launched their new toolkit for election administrators.

HRG: How did you come up with the idea for CTCL and the importance of building technology for this group of stakeholders?

TEJ: Local election officials are where the rubber meets the road in our electoral process.

But there are so few resources focused on helping officials keep pace with technology and improve communication with voters. We founded the Center for Technology and Civic Life because we saw work with local officials as one of the greatest opportunities for modernizing our voting process.

I was fortunate enough to see the community-driven, bottom-up approach last December in Chicago.  I was very struck by the design thinking principles, which worked to ensure that all people felt comfortable and able to express themselves. There were even fantastic animal stamps to articulate preferences! Can you tell us more about this process and why a community driven process is so critical?

We wanted to build a resource that both helped election officials better engage voters and was easy to use by election officials. The only way that we felt we could successfully do that was to have election officials as an active partner in the design process.

There were several points of engagement with election officials in the process:

  • We collected over 50 recommendations for tools in the Toolkit from election officials, both in-person and at election administration conferences. Officials could submit either tools that they had successfully used in their jurisdictions that they thought other election officials could use, or submit tools they wished they had.
  • We then held the December workshop (that you attended!) where we brought together 19 election officials from across the country, representing small, medium, and large jurisdictions. This workshop, led by our amazing project partners Center for Civic Design, was focused on generating additional ideas for tools in the Toolkit and narrowing in on about a dozen of the most useful (as defined by the officials) to include in the Toolkit launch.
  • In February of this year we held a second workshop, again led by our project partners Center for Civic Design and Drew Davies of Oxide Design, where a smaller group of officials helped to design the site itself.
  • Finally we spent February through our June launch doing usability testing with dozens of officials. This included testing of the way the site functioned as well as the step-by-step instructions included with each tool.

As you release this toolkit, can you explain what it is and what has been the biggest unexpected aspect of this work?

The Election Toolkit is an online library of tech resources, includes tools like a Twitter guide, a free app to measure voter wait times, tools for publishing real-time election results, and a collection of civic icons. All of the tools in the Toolkit are either free or low cost and come paired with step-by-step instructions, making them usable by any election official, regardless of their budget or technical ability.

As for the unexpected, we’ve being somewhat surprised by the positive response from people who plan to use the Toolkit who are not election officials. We’ve heard from vendors, poll workers, and organizers who see value in the resources…and we think that’s great. We are all aiming to increase access to important information about voting and civic engagement.

As we see an increasingly toxic political atmosphere this campaign season, how has this process left you all feeling?

For us, it’s been a clear reminder of the critical role that election officials play in our electoral system. They are the best source of nonpartisan voting information and are responsible for informing  everyone in their communities about upcoming elections. This is distinctly different than campaigns where there an incentive to only target those who are likely to support a given candidate.

We must support county, city, and municipal election officials across the country with the tools they need to effectively do their work in a changing tech landscape. And we see the Election Toolkit as a key piece of that work.