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Get Smart About Your Readers: Ideas & Insights
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

How you can help new voters

(Mary Nesbitt)

Uncle SamTry this: find some recently naturalized U.S. citizens (or anyone who is voting for the first time) and ask them if they have any questions about navigating the U.S. voting system in your community. Here's what I think you'll find: a big, unmet need and a nice opportunity for your news organization.

Disclosure: I'm an immigrant (from The Great White North). More than 650,000 people are naturalized every year and the adults among us are newly eligible voters. Despite being politically aware, surrounded by a bunch of smart people, and willing and able to obsessively research things to death, I'm baffled by some pretty basic things about the U.S. voting system. I'm replete with news about the campaigns and the candidates, but bereft of simple how-to information.

At our house the other day we compiled a list of questions that stump us but that you native sons and daughters will probably find silly, like:
  • Do I need to belong to a political party to vote in the primaries? The general election?

  • If I join a particular party, do I always have to vote for that party in the election?

  • How do I make sure that I have been registered? Do I get a card? Will party or local government officials contact me? Once I register, am I registered for life? Can I register and vote on the same day?

  • When I go to vote on Super Tuesday, are all the candidates listed or do they ask which party's ballot I want? If the latter, does that mean I am registered with that party? Will I start getting junk mail and telephone solicitations? Will I automatically be handed that party's ballot in November?

  • If I belong to Party A can I take Party B's ballot?

  • What do I do if I am unaffiliated or have no preference?

  • How do I actually vote at the polling place? (Will I see a hanging chad?)

  • What do I take to the polling station to prove I can vote and I am who I say I am?
And so on.

We'll figure it all out. But what about newly qualified voters who don't have the time, motivation or perseverance? Not just new citizens, but young people voting for the first time or non-regular voters? How can you make it easier for them? Because nobody out there is doing it now. Isn't this an ideal role for a trusted brand in the community - a news organization?

First, as always, you need to start from where your intended audience is. I've looked at scores of sites and, while some purport to be helpful, they're clearly constructed by insiders, people who know the system and haven't taken the time to understand outsiders' real needs. They're great for people who are already engaged; useless for those who aren't.

Realize that the structure that supports American democracy is much more complicated than most. If you grew up here, you probably absorbed an understanding of it by osmosis, but to newcomers it is opaque. Just ask them.

Leverage the fact that many people think of the local newspaper as THE place to go for important information. But don't stop at just having it somewhere - though that would be a great first step. Make obvious what you have, through on-site and in-print promotion and search optimization.

When I typed "how to vote" in the search bar on some news sites, the first thing that came up on the page was an ad link - though it could be easily mistaken for non-advertising material - for a company with a very beguiling name which, for a fee and your personal information, will register you to vote. Yikes!

I live in a village in suburban Chicago and figured chicagotribune.com would have compendious information. It does - including a good interactive database for people to find and compare candidates, but not the basic, how-do-I-understand-the-process information I was seeking. Nothing that shouts, "first-timers go here." It was no better at the Sun-Times, Daily Herald, the local broadcast networks, public radio, or PBS.

Via Google, a "How to vote Illinois" search turned up the Illinois State Board of Elections whose site promises to "provide information about elections in Illinois in and easy-to-find and easy-to-understand format." But the Voters Guide was from 2006. Maybe they don't do primaries. Maybe there will be a guide later this year. I guess you have to be in the know to know.

Next search was, "How to vote federal election". Slim pickings there and nothing useful for American elections. But a link to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the federal election there last November give some nice ideas about what U.S. news organizations could do. Of course, Australians are required by law to vote and subject to fines if they fail to. But the site gives clear instructions about what to do, where to go and how to vote strategically.

And one of the ABC links to the Australian Electoral Commission has pages for young and new voters, overseas voters, indigenous Australians, people with disabilities and people who don't speak English well. Gosh, could this be a country that not only wants everybody to vote but thinks of different segments and every way possible to make it easy for them to do so? New voters can learn exactly what takes place at a polling station, the kinds of questions they'll be asked, how to physically cast a vote, what to do if their name is not on the voters' list. (Yes, the site is too text-y but it would be easy to make it more interactive and appealing.)

A &"how to vote DuPage County" search was more productive, turning up the DuPage County Electoral Commission which had much of the registration-relevant information. But I needed more, and I had run out of time. It took a lot of clicks, links and a few hours to get that far.

What I really wanted was one place with everything that I needed (which didn't seem like much) or that would show me where to get it. Something that was clear, complete, convenient and interactive. What I wanted was a trusted source that enlightened me, didn't try to sell me something or didn't promote the merits of one party/candidate over another. I needed some kind of interactive "Voting For Dummies" and I still haven't found it. (If you've created something like that in your community, let me know and I'll share the examples here.)

If you enlarge the idea of helping new citizens navigate the system to include young adults voting for the first time and non-voters who would vote if someone made it easier for them, the potential is even greater. And isn't this is an opportunity to interact with new voters, get their perspectives and find unique story ideas?

There's a long way to go until the November polls and lots of opportunity to engage people in democracy. And of course, for a new voter, getting into the system is only the first step. How news organizations can help with the voting decision is a story for another day.


By Mary Nesbitt (m-nesbitt@northwestern.edu)
Mary Nesbitt is managing director of the Readership Institute.


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