Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Democracy Has a Design Problem

Whitney Quesenbery

Whitney Quesenbery

Whitney Quesenbery

This article was originally published in The Atlantic on May 17, 2017.

Technology alone can’t save democracy. When technology is designed and used well, it can make it easier for people to participate in elections and other activities of civic life. But when it’s not, technology that promises to help ends up being harmful.

Some tools or programs meant to improve access to information are only available to people who are comfortable with technology, who have smartphones, and can afford good data plans.

What happens to the people who get left behind?  

In the weeks before the November election, the Center for Civic Design followed voters around the country in a research study. We wanted to know how they learned about the candidates and issues they would vote on, especially for the local contests that get less attention. Whether they were deeply engaged in following the election or not, they all felt immersed in a “buzz” of opinions and news that left them feeling more anxious than informed. Some worried about being able to trust anything they read. Others simply felt overwhelmed and avoided social media.

If we want technology to help connect people with their government, we have to design it with a human face. It’s really very simple: if you don’t include a wide range of people in the design process, the richness and variety of their experiences are not considered in the final product.

When we have a more complete picture of the people, it’s easier to see the social impact of design decisions, and harder to build inadvertent stupidity into the assumptions and algorithms that go into creating technology.

At Civic Design, whether we are redesigning a voter registration form or researching barriers to participation, all of our projects start with listening. We hear both small and big things. For example, when we talk to new voters, they are often eloquent about democracy and the importance of giving everyone a voice. They want to know what is on their ballot and how the decisions they make will affect them. But they are less sure of the mechanics of participation.

For example, when we tell first time voters and new citizens that marking a ballot is like taking a standardized test, we shouldn’t be surprised when they ask how long they have to be at the polling place. Because their experience is that tests--and most government appointments--take much longer than the few minutes it should take to vote. As one person put it, “What exactly do you do when you go to the polling place?”

Understanding the perspectives of many different people is important because technology is not neutral. It includes all of the assumptions and blind spots of the people who create it. It’s important to question those assumptions, and to ask the hard questions about how civic technology can be useful and inclusive, helping everyone participate.

We need tools that demystify the act of voting in simple, clear language that can can help bridge the civic literacy gap.  This starts by designing the entire election experience and all of the materials from voter registration to ballots so they are easier to read and use. One of the saddest things we heard in a research study was a young voter who said, “I don’t know too much about voting. That’s why I stopped doing it.”

Open civic datasets are already making official information about elections widely available. Voters in our study last fall found information about who is on the ballot, how to contact candidates or elected officials, and the location of the nearest polling place in sites like Facebook and Google Search. This extends the reach of the elections office, making personalized, accurate, timely information part of the everyday experience. How do we make sure these tools are easy to use and available for every community?

We also need to ask who might be left out if participating in civic life requires digital literacy and access to the network? Will the information be available on older devices or through low-tech text messaging (or even in print)? Will the tools we create be accessible for people with disabilities, people with low literacy, and people with low digital literacy? What data will be collected about the people who access these tools, and how will it be used?

Most importantly, the new tools of democracy must meet people where they are, inform instead of overwhelm, and invite people to participate in their own way.

This article is part of The Democracy Project, a collaboration with The Atlantic.

Jun 5, 2017