Voting is a failure of the last mile

Ramit Sethi

I’m surprised. With all the news we’ve been getting lately about getting out and voting, I haven’t seen one piece of information about where I’m supposed to vote beyond the one piece of mail I got about 6 weeks ago. Who knows how many people lost that sample ballot and went online to find the info?

Unfortunately, finding information about voting registration and voting locations is awful. Maybe it’s just me–I have Tivo so I skip through commercials, and I don’t watch NBC Nightly News–but I can’t help thinking that lots of young people have similar habits of going online. In fact, the “maybe it’s just me” phrase is a red flag indicating a classic design problem. It’s not voters’ fault–it’s the designers’ fault (in this case, election officials) for not giving us the information we need beyond “EVERYBODY GO VOTE!!!”

A cursory search online doesn’t give any information, either. Now, I dug around and found the sample ballot, but I wonder how significant that initial “I can’t find it online” reaction is for voter turnout. With all the handwringing about low voter turnout, I wonder how much we could bump up results if we had an easy, step-by-step online guide to registering and finding your polling place that we actually knew about.

As Malcolm Gladwell noted in The Tipping Point when describing Howard Levanthal’s famed social psychology experiment:

Sure enough, when Levanthal redid the experiment, one small change was sufficient to tip the vaccination rate up to 28 percent. It was simply including a map of the campus, with the university health building circled and the times that shots were available clearly listed.

Voting locations based off a mailed document from 6 weeks ago? Talk about a failure of the last mile.

PS–The best voting site I found was, which I heard about on NPR

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  1. Drew

    Check out for voting locations and candidate information.

  2. HC

    Try Project Vote Smart.

    With your 9-digit zip (they include a link to the USPS lookup), they’ll give you a list of current candidates and links to voter registration information. Your link is better for finding polling places, though.

    In my area, the prominent party left an autocall on Sunday night, offering a number to call if I needed a ride to the polls or information on my polling place (I didn’t). So I guess they did come through in the last mile. Still didn’t support all their candidates, but it was a nice gesture.

  3. Elizabeth

    I agree that voting information isn’t widely available on the web. Though I knew where to vote, I didn’t know who was running for the less publicized positions (commissioners, school board, etc). So, last night I spent nearly an hour trying to find information online so I could make an educated choice. I thought I finally had it figured out and went to bed. I can’t even tell you how mad I was this morning when I showed up to vote and there were positions I hadn’t heard of (much less the candidates names). I felt robbed of my chance to make an impact.

  4. Nic Waller

    That’s ludicrous. I’m 20, so I’m probably part of those “young people” that you were referring to. I live in Canada, and at the last election I went online to find my voting area. All I had to do was type in my postal code and I was given a list of locations. If I hadn’t been able to do that, I probably would not have voted at all.

  5. Bo Schatzberg

    Pretty much every state has such an online system either through that state’s Secretary of State or Board of Elections. (also heard this on NPR). Google “find polling location” + your state, and you’ll find it. Plus, there is a link up today on the featured section on Yahoo’s homepage that will point people in the same direction.

  6. Amberlynn

    The New Voters Project noticed that same problem. Step one, get youth registered. Then, most places stop. They forgot the next steps: make sure they know that their registration worked, make sure they know how to find information, make sure then know WHEN AND WHERE to vote. In ’04 I helped run a NVP phone banking office where we called youth that our canvassers had registered to vote and said “So, do you know *where to go vote?” (It was all non-partison, by the way.)

  7. Alexandra Levit

    Ramit, this is a brilliant point. I know several people who aren’t planning on voting because it’s simply too difficult to figure out exactly what they’re supposed to do. Definitely has broad applications for customer calls to action in business at large.

  8. Jesus Fernandez

    This was the only tool directly linked to on the Miami-Dade Board of Elections website. Absolutely horrible and unusable. I had to google around until I found a map of my area with the precincts labeled to find my polling location.

    Aside from that the process (checking in, and voting) was handled smoothly. It is amazing how little attention was given to this specific part of the process.

  9. Jeremy Bettis

    You got a letter 6 weeks ago, lucky you. I received a letter when I registered to vote, and nothing since. On the other hand, my polling place has been in the same location for years, so I didn’t need any updated notification.

  10. Jenn

    I tried to get prepared Sunday evening and ran into the same problem. I live in Utah and the Voting Guide they pass out is pretty ludicrous. It doesn’t even tell me how many U.S. representatives Utah has (I just moved here) or how many will be on the ballot. No sample ballot, nothing. After much searching I was finally able to find out my polling place, which had CHANGED since I registered 5 months ago… and if I ever received notification in the mail, I certainly don’t remember it. It took me even longer to find out what hours the polls were open. And I’ve heard about proposals that aren’t listed in my Voting Guide, which also doesn’t include any information on the candidates except little blurbs they wrote themselves. I have to wonder, why did they bother?

    It has greatly surprised me how little information is available on the web. If you don’t watch the nightly news or subscribe to the paper, you’re utterly screwed.

  11. Toast1185

    Sorry this is a little late. I have been busy all day with things, including voting. I too was interested in finding my polling place and the times it was opened. It was tedious and took me a while, but lifehacker found a better solution.

    Private interests can find a great solution to anything. Markets everywhere eh?

  12. J

    I Googled “polling place” and my ZIP code and found the location of my polling place in about 30 seconds. It also included a handy-dandy map, courtesy of the Alameda County Registrar of Voters.

    I hate to say this, but people who can’t figure out where to vote probably ought not to be selecting our nation’s leadership anyhow.

  13. Ramit Sethi

    That’s bullshit. That tired excuse–“maybe those people shouldn’t ___”–is used for everything from driving a car to using the Internet, all in the name of justifying bad design. And you try to do it here, for voting–when it really matters?

    If one person fails, many more are failing at the same process–whether it’s finding a polling place or not being able to work your computer. And when you’re talking about voting, that’s millions of people who should be able to easily vote without idiotic barriers.

    Your elitist attitude pisses me off to no end. If someone can’t find a polling place, they’re not stupid–the system is broken and some designer failed somewhere. Get off your high horse. And start by reading a couple design books (here and here).

  14. Felix

    OK, try this then. You’ve identified a big problem. Who do you suppose should fix that problem?

    Being a good capitalist, your first thought ought to be “I’ll start a private enterprise and solve this big problem”. So punch those #’s into your excel spreadsheet, and see what happens… Gasp! It’s not profitable! I can’t do that! Now multiply that out by a few million, and what we get is what we get. See Ramit, business is great at providing us with luxuries, but piss poor at giving us what we need, like water, energy, and the basic tools of citizenship. So I agree, people _need_ solid information about voting. They need a lot of stuff. Stuff that can’t really be made to turn a profit, unless you burn people ( privatized water anyone? ). You’re the elitist here, my friend. Get off your high horse, and act like a real citizen. Do something _yourself_ to make a difference. Stop trying to pass the buck to some mysterious “designers” somewhere outside of your comfort zone.

  15. Ramit Sethi

    I did that. I found something where I thought there was a big need (personal finance for young people) and started something to try to help–without a thought of profit. It was just something cool I wanted to do.

    I think a voter guide is a huge opportunity for someone young to get lots and lots of exposure (and do something genuinely good). It doesn’t always have to be a business solution for profit. Sometimes people–especially young people who benefit from more exposure than Excel sheets and money–can just do things because they think it’s interesting.

    If I had more time, I’d do it myself. But since I don’t…if anyone wants to start a comprehensive voting guide for registration, voting location, and whatever else, I’ll help through advice and introductions.

  16. Jessica

    usually finding out where you’re supposed to go isn’t the problem – that information is available practically everywhere online, libraries, your voter ID card probably has the address of your voting location, most people can manage to get out the old phone book and call the office of the local supervisor of elections

    the real problem is that there’s not a standard list of interview questions on issues that’s publicly available – it’s particularly hard to find information on local government candidates since the issues are so city specific – but usually even that information can be found if people choose to take the time out of their lives (before the last minute) and search

  17. vin

    May be US should learn something from India. Rather than using very high tech methods how about people-to-people contact? In India during elections, politicians are very people friendly, they even go door-to-door for campaining. People force of political parties draw people towards voting centers. (Althogh after getting elected they don’t show thier faces to voters, but that’s different issue.) Atleast in terms of executing election machinery India is far ahead of US even after being far poorer and 3 times more populous.

  18. Josh J

    Hey folks, what about those people who don’t have access to the internet and aren’t able to hop on and search for their polling place? Yes, if you’re super motivated to go out and vote, you will find the information you need to make it happen…. but why should our elections be decided by the “super motivated”? And to say that if you’re motivated then you are a more educated or desireable voter is lame and untrue. I’m sure there are plenty of folks uneducated about the issues who cast a ballot today. Ramit makes a good point, and we have to take a look at the system… a system that allows for politicians to redistrict to gain or retain votes, and a system that may or may not educate voters on a local level based on the voting tendencies of a certain area. Beyond that, the fatalistic view of apathetic voters is what really prevents people from voting… sure providing better access to information will help, but people don’t vote becuase they don’t think their vote, will make a difference, or that any politician will really improve their situation. If you hold that view, what’s the point in voting?

  19. Jessica

    We’re so spoiled as a culture to think that everything should be handed to us without us having to do the slightest bit of work. It’s easy to be full of excuses for not voting, because it’s too hard to find the location or imformation, or you’re not going to really change annything cause the system is screwed up. It’s easy to sit and complain.

    You don’t have to be “super motivated.” You don’t need the interent (of course everyone who’s posting here certainly has access so I don’t see why that commplaint is there) You simply have to decide that it is important enough to you that you will go to a library or pick up a phone (or go online!) and get the information that you need.

    Yes the system has problems but if you don’t bother to participate then you really won’t have any say in changing the system. I heard that around 40% of the population bothered to vote – the other 60% could easily pick third party candidates and get some real changes started… if they were interested.

    Your local city and county government is the most important thing to participate in because it’s through local government that you have the most power to effect real change in your life and community.

    I think it really comes down to people being really busy and choosing not to take the time to become informed. It’s much easier to complain and be a victim of the system than to be responsible and use the power that you’ve been given.

  20. Burry Katz

    Ramit, even your non-finance entries are brilliant. Keep up the good work!

  21. Enrique

    IT is very easy to find where to vote.
    The only thing you need to know is in what county you live. For example, if you live in San Jose, Ca look for Santa Clara County.
    Then on your search engine, type Santa Clara County, California. It will take you to to your county govt and election department. You can give them a call as to find out where is your precint to vote.
    We will voting again in two years.
    Good luck,

  22. gr8face

    I saw something on CNN today about a people videoing the problems at different polling places and posting it on Youtube.

  23. Bookview

    Oregon took away even the “I don’t know where to go to vote” excuse by instituting our vote-by-mail system. Not absolutely perfect (over-controlling spouses could be a problem), but when the polling place is your own kitchen table and you can cast your ballot the minute you receive it in the mail, no more, “Weeell, I woulda voted but it was raining/lines were too long/cat threw up/oh, whatever…”

  24. David

    Perhaps it’s the young voters fault, not the system. The system has been here a long, long time and generation after generation of people have voted…so why not today’s kids?

    If you ask me it’s kind of pathetic that every other generation can figure out how to vote, but today’s kids need “Special Instructions”…

  25. maloo

    I was goign thru a yahoo article “Best Blogs for the Young and Broke” and found urs in that and thought that it would be very interesting ……and I have no clue abt some of these things..1)Ur site says”I will teach u to be rich” but theres nothing in it abt becoming rich ..either u becoming rich or making others rich..2) And after I went thru some of the articles I found that most of them are like ur general views and some ideas that u usually talk with frens like that and nothing more than that.
    Then for what is ur blog said to be the best blog ?:)

  26. J

    Ramit, why did you go to the internet first? I just knock on the door of older neighbors. I mean, hey, before 2000 they were the only ones who voted in local elections.

  27. JM

    dude, just look on your voter registration card. You get it when you register. Keep it with your passport and other important documents. There isn’t anything online to help me look up my social security number either, but I wouldn’t exactly call that a last mile failure. Sometimes you just have to memorize stuff or keep important documents in a safe place.

  28. DJ

    “Oh man! So I wanted to go to Canada and they said I needed a passport! I thought about it, and the last time I used that thing was, like, two years ago dudes! I don’t even know where it could be! Probably in a pile of papers somewhere. Hope I didn’t throw it out. But anyway, how stupid is that? Regulating international travel on a piece of paper I got, like, years ago – no wonder so many people complain about customs!”

    Like a passport and a driver’s license, your voter registration card isn’t something to be thrown away. If your state is like mine, your card not only tells you your polling place, but has instructions in bold print telling you to a) sign it, and b) keep it in your wallet or safe place.

    Seriously, man, what happened to you? You expect people to take serious control of their personal finances, but when it comes to democracy, you can’t be bothered to not throw away a goverment mailing that has “HEY! DON’T THROW THIS AWAY!” tattooed on it.

    P.S. Maybe you were using the wrong Internet:

  29. Adam Lasnik

    My goodness, Ramit. Maybe I just got lucky, but it seems that with about 45 seconds of Googling, pretty much anyone (at least in the U.S.) can rather easily find their polling place.
    “where do i vote cityname”
    “polling place cityname”

    What if someone doesn’t have net access, can’t get to a library or cafe with net access, has no friends with net access, isn’t a student with net access at school?

    They could:
    – Buy a newspaper the day before, day of.
    – Use their phonebook to call pretty much any local gov’t office which’d surely be able to direct them.
    – Heck, they could probably even call a local radio station and they’d point them in the right direction.

    Am I elitist to think that someone should spend between 45 seconds and 2 minutes to help them exercise a right that our forefathers fought so hard for?!

    If so, then yep, I’m a damned liberal elitist. Next thing you know, I’ll be suggesting that people have a responsibility to read contracts before they sign them, take personal responsibility for their kids’ behaviors, and so on…

  30. Jay Cordle

    Lookie here…

    I *get* it, Ramit. You are absolutely correct, and some people are not getting it. For those of you calling out Ramit on this subject, listen up.

    He’s not saying it’s impossible to find the info. I’m sure that he supports the simplicity and usefulness of search engines, too. What he is saying is this:

    There is already a system in place to vote. From one endpoint (the legislative process that results in the things we vote on) to the other (dropping the ballot in the box, however you do it), the government is performing this function.

    If you are going to do all of these things, why not get it right from one end all the way to the other? If you owned a business, would you make the mistake of investing in market research, collecting data on your customers and spending money on a mail catalog or flier, but slack off when it came to telling them when/how/where they can find the cash register?

    Compare private business to the current system. What I think Ramit is saying is that the government is failing to deliver its customers through the “last mile”. We (the local/state/federal governments) legislate. We plan, orchestrate and fund the operations of the entire voting process. What we don’t do is make it easy for “customers” to participate.

    Tell me – why is it that, of all the experience of all the people reading and posting here, we have a wide variety of answers to this puzzle? If it were, in fact, as easy as some say it should be, shouldn’t everyone be shouting out the same answer that works for everyone?

    Look at it in reverse. What if I saif: “I’m not sure how to pay my taxes. What do I do?”. In unison, people would be directing me to IRS.GOV in a heartbeat. All the forms are there, and while not perfect, it’s pretty simple, given the complexity of the current tax code. They have fantastic phone support if you want it (try it – you’ll see!). Here, the government is working hard on the design of taking our tax money. What if they did the same for the voting process?