2020 has been a stressful, complicated, scary time for so many people. A truly terrible year. I don’t need to list the ways—you’ve experienced it for yourself. In the presidential election season alone, we’ve seen Russian interference, reported intimidation at polling places, long lines, and dozens of court cases. But there is one massive bright spot: It is easier to vote than it ever has been before.
More people are registered. Ballot design is clearer and more usable. Voting systems are more accessible to people with disabilities and low English. Voting by mail (or voting at home) is more available than ever. If you want to vote in person, you can do so safely at more early voting locations. There is more authoritative, official information about voting dates, deadlines, hours, and locations available because county and state websites are more plentiful, more accessible, and more usable.
The reason we can bemoan the travesty of hours-long lines at polling places is because there is early voting. We can lament the mistakes people make in sending in their vote-by-mail ballots because mail-in voting is possible. The reason we are fighting about the number of drop boxes is because there are drop boxes.
The voting ecosystem is actually flourishing.
More people are registered
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states have some form of automatic voter registration (AVR) in place, which has added millions of people to the voter rolls over the past two years without state customers having to do a thing but update their state ID. A Brennan Center report shows that AVR increased voter registration in 2017 in Georgia by nearly 94%. Typically, Georgia would register about 6,279 people a week. But in 2017, the state registered just over 12,160 voters each week. Increasing voter registration by an additional 300,000 voters each year through automatic voter registration in Georgia could be one reason that there are so many people waiting in line for early voting.
You can look for an average 5% bump in registered voters by the end of Election Day too, as 21 states and Washington, D.C., register people who show up at the polls previously unregistered. Thousands more voters will be registered on Election Day as states such as Michigan, Nevada, and Washington see their first presidential elections with same-day voter registration.
Ballots are better designed
Ballots are better designed, so voters are more likely to vote the way they intend. Their votes are more likely to be counted as cast. And there should be fewer recounts.
The presidential election in 2000 was a ballot-design disaster. The most famous example was what became known as the “butterfly ballot” used in Palm Beach County, Florida. The design of this ballot led thousands of voters to believe that they had voted for a different candidate than the one they intended to, and ultimately to a series of recounts. But we’ve evolved a lot since then. In 2007, the Election Assistance Commission issued the first research-based design system and ballot design guidelines. It took voting system vendors nearly a decade to catch up. It’s only been in the last few years, as local jurisdictions have had to replace the systems they bought in the early 2000s, that better ballot design is available through updated voting and election systems.
Digital ballots are also better designed. If you’re using a touch screen to mark a ballot and you find it easy to use, including setting up your own preferences for font size, language, and colors, hooray! That is possible because of basic applied research and prototyping funded by the Election Assistance Commission and the Democracy Fund and conducted over several years to develop a concept called the Anywhere Ballot.
Now, all of the commercially available voting systems have implemented templates that use most of the design system for paper, and thousands of counties have implemented as much as they can within the local laws and other constraints they have to deal with. Most of these systems also base their user interface design for touch screen systems on Anywhere Ballot design principles.
There’s more, better, official information available on county and state websites
One key element making it possible for a well-informed electorate to exercise the franchise is access to clear, true information about what’s on the ballot, how to register, where to vote, and when the polls are open. As the availability of information through local newspapers or news sites shrinks, local government websites have become more important as a source of information. In a study I ran with Cyd Harrell (and others) leading up to the 2012 presidential election, less than a quarter of our participants had ever visited their county website.
Over the last year or so, state election offices have upped their game on voter information sites, offering not only online voter registration but also tons of accessible, multilingual information about how to register, how to vote, and what to expect at the polls. Local election jurisdictions are answering voters’ questions online through beautiful new websites based on a simple WordPress template developed by U.S. Digital Response in partnership with the Center on Tech and Civic Life and the Center for Civic Design, implementing much of what we learned in that 2012 study I mentioned above. And, thanks to structured content, most local election websites will come up in the top search results when voters search for information online about voting.
There are more places to vote, including at home
While it’s true that there aren’t enough polling places in high-density jurisdictions such as Harris County, Texas (Houston), and Fulton County, Georgia (Atlanta), other jurisdictions have opened up voting centers where any voter can get their ballot. For example, many California counties are using a graduated strategy of having a few vote centers open in the earliest days of the voting period, and then adding more as they get closer to Election Day and demand ramps up. This isn’t just a convenience. It’s necessary as more people are either displaced by climate-related disasters or are moving because of COVID-19-related evictions.
If you’re worried about all those people voting by mail for the first time ever because it’s more available, you can thank the Center for Civic Design (disclosure: I was a cofounder) and dozens of local election officials for spending the last few years developing and testing a design system for mailing envelopes, secrecy envelopes, return envelopes, and instructions to voters. Because CCD coordinated both with the U.S. Postal Service and with the largest printing and mailing vendors, and took into account state laws, these designs are in use in at least a dozen states.
Some of the apparently sudden acceleration of access to more options for getting and casting a ballot is certainly because COVID-19 is a catalyst. But as the pandemic motivated rapid change (especially to voting by mail), it also acts as a magnifier of inequity. Access to clear, plain, current information about how to take part is missing in some places. Laws are out of date or actively suppress voting for some voters.
Changes to access to voting because of COVID-19 have also opened up opportunities for new kinds of voter suppression through ongoing court cases around where, when, and whether ballots get collected, cast, and counted. The acceleration of access reveals where election administrators are under-resourced—where they need more financial support and other resources for larger turnout and new processes. While Congress had the opportunity to act by making funding available to local election offices to support secure, healthy, and safe elections, the Senate failed to take action. States and counties are making do with funding, equipment, and staffing levels that in some jurisdictions, at least, are inadequate. In this election, every vote will be counted that legally can be. But in the aftermath, we are likely to see proposals for state and federal laws to further improve election infrastructure.
Incremental change adds up
Most of the factors that make voting easier have been evolving for years. What we’re seeing now is the culmination of work by hundreds of election officials, researchers, designers, technologists, and vendors to make incremental change over time. And thanks to that hard work, the voting ecosystem is flourishing in new ways. So as you drop your ballot in a collection box and easily cast a vote for the person you intend, keep in mind that long lines are a sign that the system is improving, and a reminder of what still needs improvement. So let’s not stop here. The healthier we can make our voting ecosystem, the stronger we will all be for it.
Dana Chisnell is a senior fellow at the National Conference on Citizenship, where she works on putting humans at the center of public policy. Follow her on Twitter.